When my father died in the winter of 2000, back when I was newly 19, the single thing he left me was a nine-millimeter pistol. The day after his funeral, my grandfather simply told me my father wanted me to have it, handing it to me in its ragged original packaging — spare bullets, along with the pistol, spilling from the Styrofoam encasement as I opened the discolored box.
This inheritance both surprised and confused me. For one thing, though I’d spent my early childhood with rifles and shotguns racked against the walls of our home and the rear window of my father’s Jeep, with countless taxidermied deer heads gazing down at me apathetically, I’d never known my father to own a handgun. For another, unlike all the other men in my family, I’d never spent a second in a tree stand, didn’t even recall playing with toy guns; rather than pretending to shoot deer or Iraqi soldiers, for instance, one Christmas I requested and received a custom-made deer costume for my Cabbage Patch doll, Casey.
The pistol also puzzled me because I hadn’t necessarily expected to inherit anything at all from my father. Over the prior 10 years, my mother had to fight for nearly all the child support she’d received, and it was an open secret that, when my mother had divorced him, he’d spent the $20,000 my great-grandmother had given him to split between my older brother and me, once we were of age, on a revenge Grand Prix. My mother had pined for a Grand Prix in the months before she left him, and so he bought one for himself, kept it immaculate, and always left it in the furthest reaches of parking lots, where it was least likely to get dinged.
Two weeks before I’d gotten the gun, and hardly a month into my second semester at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, my father’s family called me back home to Northeast Arkansas to visit him for the last time I would see him conscious. Only a week after that, they called me home again to see him, then in a coma, die.
That day, when we all knew his body was finally going to expire as we listened to its death rattle, none of the other men in my family, which is to say none of the people closest to him, could bear to be with him. My brother, who was six years older than me and had lived with my father after our parents divorced, was too afraid. My grandfather, who was also my father’s best friend, my father his namesake, was too emotionally unstable, sleepless for weeks, having had a dream in which my father was lost on a hunt at night, and as he called for my grandfather, no matter which way my grandfather pointed his light, no matter which way he stumbled in the woods, my grandfather couldn’t find his son. And so there I was at my father’s bedside with the women of the family — with the women, where I usually was. I thought that as one of his three closest living relations, even though he and I weren’t at all intimate, it was my place to be with him when he died.
A father and son visit a collector of Nazi paraphernalia in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina:
My father glanced over his shoulder at me and emitted a wheeze-burst of laughter—an exhalation intended to express disbelief. He had led me to an underground vault containing the artifacts of the last century’s most brutal regime, and he now seemed downright giddy. I, on the other hand, didn’t know what to think or what to say. I found it difficult to process what any of this meant. That is, I didn’t know why it was here, how it had gotten from where it had been made to where it was now. Were we in the presence of some kind of monster? Or had he created this space for stuff he deemed historically significant, buried it in a moisture-controlled vault because he fancied himself one of history’s unbiased curators? Was this the product of an obsessive and sympathetic mind, one which interpreted the mainstream records of history as having been unduly cruel to the Third Reich, which had been a movement, in his eyes, about nationalism, about ancestors, about revering and honoring the past? I didn’t know. And, honestly, I was afraid to ask.
He wasn’t even two years old; a tiny thing, really, hardly even a person. Alfred was the ninth son of King George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, their fourteenth child. But his numerous siblings didn’t make Alfred any less beloved. Portraits of the boy show him as rosy-cheeked and handsome, with light eyes, a pronounced Cupid’s bow, and soft folds of neck fat. His royal parents loved him dearly, and when he died on the 20th of August, 1782, Queen Charlotte was said to have “cried vastly.” The king, too, was bereft. Later, when he went mad, he reportedly held conversations with his lost little boy and his brother, Octavius, who’d also died as a child.
Often, upon losing a family member, 18th century mourners would send the dead to their graves only after giving them one last haircut. They would harvest their locks to create elaborate weavings. Sometimes, the hair would be fashioned into floral wreaths. Sometimes, it would be made into jewelry. Frequently, the hair was plaited and pressed into lockets, which were then worn close to the heart. Prince Alfred didn’t have enough hair on his small blonde head for a weaving, but a tress did make it into a locket — a single soft curl. It sits behind glass, in a gold and enamel frame that displays the dates of his birth and death. The other side of the locket, a delicate piece of jewelry shaped like an urn, is decorated with seed pearls and amethysts. It is now part of the Royal Collection Trust. “Due to his age, there was no official mourning period for Alfred,” notes scholar and collector Hayden Peters at The Art of Mourning. “But his death came at a time of the mourning industry being a necessary part of fashion and a self-sustaining one in its own right.”
When it comes to mourning jewelry, there’s no piece quite like the locket. Whether urn, round, oval, heart, or coffin-shaped, it’s an item that telegraphs absence. I love is the message the locket sends. Or perhaps more accurately, I have loved. Even today, we understand that lockets are meant to show allegiance to someone who is not present, whether the loss is through death or just the general isolation of modern life. A grandmother might wear a locket with pictures of her far-away grandchildren. One half of a long-distance couple might keep a locket with a bit of their partner’s hair. I know a woman who wears a locket with a picture of her dead sister; she plays with it sometimes when she’s drifting in thought.
It’s a beautiful piece, but it’s impossible for me to divorce the beauty of the silver pendant from its significance. Once you know someone’s greatest wound, it’s hard to look at them the same way you did before. And once you know an object’s terrible provenance, it’s difficult to covet it without feeling at least a little guilty, a little angry at your own sinful schadenfreude.
Before the ritualization of mourning in the Victorian era, wearable containers were a discrete way to keep an item close, usually something that had significant personal meaning or an intimate purpose. These pendants, brooches, or rings were visible and sometimes highly ornate, but their contents weren’t typically meant for public consumption. As emotions have slowly become more public (and more performative), so too have lockets gone from being highly private objects to functioning as a means of displaying big sentiment in a socially acceptable way. Like generational trauma tap dancing through DNA strands, jewelry transports sentiment from one person to the next. It holds, in its tiny little chains and clasps, evidence of our most devastating emotions, from fear to grief to existential despair. It makes those things small, palatable, pretty. But in the shrinking of emotion, we run the risk of losing touch with the expansive and all-consuming reality of grief. We risk losing the opportunity to come together as a community, to hold not jewelry, but each other.
* * *
For as long as we’ve been aware of our bodies, we’ve adorned them. Adam and Eve donned fig leaves to cover their nakedness, and thus clothing was born. But we just as easily could have covered ourselves with other objects, for other reasons. It’s possible we wore furs to stay warm. It’s also possible we wore them to look cool. (We’ve come a long way, sartorially, from the hides-and-leaves days.)
If this conflates clothing and jewelry, it’s because the line between the two is actually quite thin. Clothing is typically made of fabric, leather, or fur, while jewelry is made of metal. Yet some jewelry is made of leather and fabric, and some clothing is made from iron and gold, so the difference isn’t about materials. It’s about function: Clothing covers and protects the body, jewelry adorns and enhances it. “Jewelry has been a constantly evolving product of its time for centuries, and looking at the styles of a particular age is a great way to discover where people’s heads were,” says jewelry historian Monica McLaughlin. “Over time, jewelry has served as a form of talisman or a personal item of reflection, as a way to support one’s country in a war effort, or as an outlet for people — rich or poor — to memorialize their loved ones or proclaim their latest enthusiasms, It really is a tiny, exquisite little window into history.”
I love is the message the locket sends. Or perhaps more accurately, I have loved.
The word locket, most likely derived from the Frankish word loc or the Norse lok, meaning “lock” or “bolt,” first appeared in the 17th century, but the concept of a diminutive, wearable container dates back much further. The earliest examples of container jewelry — a category that includes lockets, rings, bracelets, broaches, and even chatelaines, a kind of metal belt that allowed the wearer to carry keys, scissors, good luck charms, and a variety of small containers attached to one central decorative piece — come from the Middle East and India, though it’s proven difficult to tell exactly when or where the locket was born. Until recently, jewelry wasn’t as rigorously studied as other art forms, says Emily Stoehrer, jewelry curator for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “Maybe it’s the materials,” she muses. Or maybe it has something to do with the newly gendered nature of jewelry (diamonds weren’t always a girl’s best friend, if you get my drift).
The Museum of Fine Art has built up a substantial jewelry collection over the past century. One of the MFA’s most popular and most written-about items is the Hathor-headed crystal pendant, a piece that has been dated to 743-712 B.C.E. It’s also the earliest example of container jewelry that I’ve found, though I strongly doubt that it was the first of its kind. Just over two inches tall and an inch-and-a-quarter wide, it consists of a hollow crystal ball topped with a tiny gold sculpture of a serene, long-haired Hathor. The goddess wears a headdress featuring a pair of cow horns and a sun disc. The woman’s face looks composed, kind, and brave — fitting, since she’s the deity of beautification, fertility, and a protector of women. Hathor, according to Geraldine Pinch, author of Egyptian Mythology, was “the golden goddess who helped women to give birth, the dead to be reborn, and the cosmos to be renewed.” Later, during the Greco-Roman period, she became known as a moon deity, and the goddess of “all precious metals, gemstones, and materials that shared the radiant qualities of celestial bodies.”
This pendant was found in the tomb of a queen who lived in Nubia. We don’t know what the crystal originally contained; the MFA website says it “probably contained substances believed to be magical.” Stoehrer doesn’t have much more to add, saying that it is “believed to have had a papyrus scroll inside it with magical writing that would have protected the wearer.” The mystery, she says, is part of the appeal. “People love the story of what might have been in it, what it might have said.”
According to Stoeher, wearable prayers and early receptacle jewelry were created around the globe, but were particularly popular in “non-western” countries; historians have found evidence that people in ancient India and Tibet carried magical wardings on their bodies, pieces of prayers and words for good luck. Christians eventually began to wear small containers holding devotional objects a bit later, sometime in the Middle Ages. But some devoted followers of Christ weren’t satisfied with writing down a few words of worship and calling it a day. Instead, they hoarded pieces of people, bits of bone and hair and blood.
Relics are one of the grisliest forms of Christian worship. Although the belief in relics, defined by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the “physical remains of a holy site or holy person, or objects with which they had contact,” has been part of the religion since its beginning, the trade in relics truly began to pick up steam during the reign of Charlemagne. According to historian Trevor Rowley, the body of a saint could act as a stairway to heaven, providing a “spiritual link between life and death, between man and God.” Relics were typically stored in decorative cases called reliquaries. Made from ivory, metal, gemstones, and gold, reliquaries had places of honor in churches, monasteries, cathedrals, and castles. The most revered relics were objects that Jesus or Mary had touched or worn (including purported pieces of the True Cross, his Crown of Thorns, or scraps of woven camel-hair believed to have been worn by Mary as a belt) but there are plenty of relics that belonged to lesser figures, like saints. Many of these aren’t lifeless objects like shoes or hats, but bits of hands and arms and hearts and legs. (There are also secular relics, like three of Galileo’s fingers, on display at the Galileo Museum in Florence, or the supposed 13-inch-long alleged pickled penis of Rasputin housed at the Museum of Erotica in St. Petersburg, though these objects aren’t worshiped in quite the same way.) Since there are thousands of recognized saints in Christianity and it’s hard to tell one disembodied leg or desiccated kidney from another, there are a lot of possible relics out there to be unearthed, sold, and displayed.
Fascinating as these grim objects may be, they’re still less strange than the reliquaries once worn by medieval Christians. It’s one thing to inter a body in a church and allow visitors to pray over it on a Sunday, and quite another to take a fragment of finger bone, stick it in a tiny silver case, and wear it around your neck, but that’s exactly what people did. One personal reliquary housed at the British Museum, dated to 1340, is made from gold, amethyst, rock crystal, and enamel. Inside the colorful locket nestles a single long thorn believed to come from the holy crown. Many reliquaries held splinters of bone, though later analysis often found that the bone was unlikely to be from a saint (and sometimes wasn’t even from a human). Merchants sold reliquary pendants stuffed with teeth, hair, blood-stained fragments of cloth, drips of tomb oil, and other supposedly holy items. The practice continues to this day, but Peak Relic was during the Romanesque period, which ended around 1200 CE.
As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, container jewelry was used more and more often for mundane (and hygienic) purposes. There are many examples of people keeping scented materials in little wearable containers in attempts to mask their natural smells. Known as pomanders, from the French pomme d’ambre (apple of ambergris), these perfume balls were packed with musk oil, ambergris, and other less costly plant-based fragrances. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has ten in their permanent collection, including an incense ball from 13th or 14th century Syria and a skull-shaped pomander from 17th century England. There are intricate silver many-chambered balls and basket-shaped pendants that would have once housed fragrances like neroli, civet musk, ambergris, rose oil, and myrrh, a shell-shaped gold pendant that still has “traces of a red residue” inside its chambers, and even a pomander bead that was part of a devotional necklace or rosary and contained pictures of three female saints hidden behind spring mechanisms.
It’s one thing to inter a body in a church and allow visitors to pray over it on a Sunday, and quite another to take a fragment of finger bone, stick it in a tiny silver case, and wear it around your neck, but that’s exactly what people did.
If you didn’t want to carry around perfume, you could pack your pomander with an opium-laced mixture known as “Venice Treacle” in late medieval and early Renaissance England. (Opium was believed to be effective against the plague, so its usage was medicinal as well as recreational.) If you were really ambitious, maybe you’d wear a poison ring. It would be an easy way to defeat political rivals: Pour them a goblet of wine, flick the locking mechanism, and let the poison drop from your hand into their cup. Voilà, no more pesky Venetian cardinal or aggressive Flemish countess. According to legend, multiple members of the infamous Borgia family wore poisoned rings filled with cantarella, a custom concoction made by 16th century Italian merchants from either the juices of rotting pig entrails sprinkled with arsenic or the froth that accumulates on a poisoned pig’s mouth after it dies from arsenic poisoning — fables differ in the details.
Pomanders and poison rings weren’t truly that far from reliquaries in their design or their purpose. All of these things — saints’ bones, prayer snippets, rancid pig poison, sweet-smelling whale bile — were precious and private. They all afforded the wearer some sort of protection. Protection against the plague, protection against evil, protection against embarrassment. Even pomanders were about protection; it was often believed that illness spread through bad smells. According to the miasma theory, scents were a matter of life and death. A whiff of “bad air” could fell even the halest traveler. A pomander kept your smells from invading the rest of the world, and the world’s smells from infecting you.
There are examples of container jewelry from almost every era of human history and almost every corner of the globe. Perhaps there is something primal about our desire to squirrel away objects, to keep some precious little things on our bodies at all times. Maybe we need small things to feel big. I think, sometimes, that humans are drawn to things that are oversized and things that are terrifically undersized. Like Gulliver, we want to see worlds of both giants and manikins. We like dollhouses and lockets, giant nutcrackers and too-big wineglasses. These things remind of us childhood, and of dreams, places where reality is slippery and true faith is possible.
And maybe we hoard little parts of things in order to feel whole. Maybe prayers need something physical to attach to, hope needs something tangible to ground it, and grief a placeholder for an unspeakable absence.
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Trends tend to grow slowly at first, bubbling under the surface of the collective consciousness. They simmer, sometimes for a few years, sometimes for a few hundred, until some precipitating event when suddenly, the once-obscure trend is everywhere.
Queen Elizabeth I Ring, c. 1560. Found in the collection of the Chequers Estate. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
That’s how it was with mourning jewelry. Since the 16th century, people had been commissioning jewelers to make them little mementos for their lost ones, rings and bracelets and lockets like the Chequers Ring, which has been dated to the mid-1570s and was worn by Queen Elizabeth I. The gold locket ring is in the shape of an E and adorned with white diamonds, rubies, and mother of pearl. Behind is a secret compartment with two enamel portraits believed to represent Queen Elizabeth herself and her mother, Anne Boleyn, who was executed when Elizabeth was nearly three years old. Pieces like the Chequers Ring are thematic siblings to the memento mori jewelry that was popular at the time, which often featured jeweled coffins, delicate gold skeletons, and other macabre bits of shiny symbolism. Instead of reminding the viewer that they, too, will die, mourning jewelry reminded the people that the wearer had experienced a loss, that they harbored great grief. Perhaps they also reminded the wearer that they had a right to their sadness. Mourning jewelry made absence visible and tangible. It made sadness present on the physical body.
Queen Victoria didn’t come up with the idea of mourning jewelry, but she did mourn more visibly and publicly than anyone else had, or could. Following the death of her husband Prince Albert in December 1861, Victoria entered a state of permanent mourning. She had the means to grieve decadently, and she did. She didn’t have just one locket for Albert, but several. She wore these charms on bracelets, broaches, and around her neck. It was her style; according to historian Claudia Acott Williams, Victoria’s first piece of sentimental jewelry was a gift from her mother and contained a lock of her deceased father’s hair, as well as several strands of her mother’s hair. During her very public courtship and wedding, “She and Albert would mark so many of those ubiquitous human moments that endeared her to the public with jewelry commissions that were widely publicized in the popular press and subsequently emulated by her subjects.” After Albert was gone, Victoria commissioned a gold memorial locket made with onyx and diamonds. Around the outside of the pendant, enamel letters spell out Die reine Seele schwingt sich auf zu Gott (“the pure soul flies up above to the Lord”). Inside, she placed a lock of Albert’s brown hair and a photograph of her deceased love. Victoria left instructions that, upon the occasion of her death, this locket be placed into Albert’s Room at Windsor Castle and left on display. It must have meant so much to her, that locket. It must have felt like a piece of her broken heart, an emotional wound made wearable and beautiful.
People of all socio-economic strata wore mourning jewelry of some kind. After all, you didn’t need to use costly gems; you could just give the deceased a post-mortem haircut and use the strands to create a bracelet or a ring. Some jewelry even featured bones in place of jewels (Victoria had a gold thistle brooch set with her daughter Vicky’s first lost milk tooth in place of the flower), though this wasn’t nearly as common as jewelry that featured woven, braided, or knotted hair. “If you’re poor, you wouldn’t have access to photography. That’s too expensive,” says Art of Mourning’s Peters. “But you could cut your hair off and pop it in a locket and give it to someone you love. That way, you can be with them always.”
Peters also notes many jewelers trying to capitalize on the trend played a bit fast and loose with the sources for their hair weavings. Sometimes you’d go to a craftsperson and ask that a locket be made with your beloved’s hair, and you’d return home with a piece made from their hair — and then some. “A lot of the hair they used was from nunneries,” he explains. Some customers knew that the hair was being supplemented, but not everyone was aware of this practice.
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Even more disturbing to Peters was the role that advertising played in the promotion of mourning goods and rituals. “Exploitation of death through grief is as certain as death itself,” writes Peters in an essay published in A Miscellany of Death & Folly. “In particular, fashion has been a focal point through which death has been exploited, due to its highly emotive nature.” Department stores stocked solely with mourning paraphernalia began to pop up. Peters makes it clear that these items weren’t necessarily all that personal. Often, each mourner that attended a funeral would be gifted a simple ring, and people tended to judge the lives of their peers by the type and quality of jewelry they left behind for grieving friends and neighbors.
The sentimental jewelry trend wasn’t confined to the Continent. It was also fashionable in America to wear hair brooches, silver lockets, and other personal pieces. After the Industrial Revolution, people from most social classes could buy mass produced lockets, which they could then fill with photographs of their beloved or bits of their hair. Many of these were made in Newark, New Jersey, the jewelry manufacturing capital of the United States. The industry got its start there in the early 1800s, and by the late 1920s, Newark was producing 90 percent of the 14-karat gold jewelry in America. Alongside the full-color images of filigree gold pendants and colorful “fruit salad” bracelets and the essays about the shifting trends in American consumerism, The Glitter & The Gold: Fashioning America’s Jewelry tells tales of abuse and exploitation. Though the journeyman jewelers were fairly well paid, conditions in factories were generally grim and child labor was commonplace. Paid far less than their male coworkers, girls were often employed to do the most precise handwork, like fashioning gold watch chains or hand-painting enamel, because of their thin and dexterous fingers. “The jewelers work, in all its branches, is particularly trying to the eyes, and it not infrequently happens that defective sight compels men to abandon the trade,” reported chief of the state’s Bureau of Statistics of Labor and Industries around the turn of the twentieth century. Smead adds that “respiratory disorders were also common — common enough to be the leading cause of death among jewelers.”
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By the time the Civil War came about, many middle class Americans were purchasing costume and fine jewelry that was made in Newark (though often factories would mark their goods “London” or “Paris” since U.S.-made items wouldn’t come into vogue for another fifty years). Lockets, heart-shaped and oval, were particularly popular during this socially chaotic period, and showed up frequently in literature and art. It was common practice for soldiers and their sweethearts to exchange sentimental trinkets before the man marched off to battle. A posthumously published and mostly-forgotten short story by Kate Chopin makes one such piece a central player: “The Locket” switches perspectives between a young Confederate soldier and his sweetheart. He had been wearing a locket, given to him by his girl at home, which he refers to as his good luck charm. After the battle, the same gold necklace is plucked off a corpse and mailed to the girl, who assumes that her love was killed. At the end, he returns home to find his lover dressed all in black. Another boy died, one who stole the locket believing that its “voodoo” would keep him alive. Our ersatz hero lives, thank the gods of love.
It’s a sentimental story about a sentimental piece of jewelry, and I can’t say I liked it much. It reminds me of a Nicholas Sparks story, or a Thomas Kinkade painting, or any other corny, sappy work of art. It drips with tears and snot. It has a hollow core: too much emotion, not enough meat. The story is set up as a tragedy, but at the last minute, Chopin pulls the rug out from under the reader and wraps them in a cozy blanket. Here, she says, here is what you wanted.
As for the boy who died? Well, we’re not supposed to think hard about him. Surely he deserved to die, for he was a thief and a coward. Like most sentimental works, it follows pat beats: a problem is set up, an exchange happens, a resolution is reached. In the end, the titular locket is revealed to have had no power — except to trick the woman into believing her love was lost, and perhaps to trick the robber into thinking he was safe on the battlefield.
That’s the dirty heart of the story. Maybe it’s not about the character’s great love, but the reader’s great fear. Fear that there is no protection from death, that there is no charm to keep away loss. Fear that unlike the boy in the story, your boy won’t come back.
Twenty-first century mourning has gone in two very different directions. It’s either become entirely intangible or deeply physical, almost to an obsessive degree. There are online guest books to mourn the dead, ghostly Facebook pages that live on “in legacy,” and online grief support groups, or you can buy diamonds made from the hair and ashes of a dead loved one. “Cremation diamonds are forever since they are diamonds made out of human ashes,” reads the website for Lonité, a Switzerland-based company that pressurizes the carbon-rich remnants of a body in order to “grow” amber-colored jewels that start at $1250 per quarter-carat, significantly less than most mined diamonds but slightly more than the average lab-grown diamond. Other companies will turn your ashes into glass beads or encase them in clay or metal. And while hair jewelry isn’t quite as fashionable as it once was, there are still hair artists who can weave a lock of hair into a keepsake.
It’s tempting to conclude that the ugliest part of lockets is what we put inside them—the poison, the remnants, the evidence of adultery, and the perfumed animal oils. But I think the worst part is how desperately we try to shrink down our emotions, to make them small and private and containable. Instead of sharing our fears aloud or wearing our sadness on the surface, we place it into jeweled containers, objects that latch and close and can be tucked under the shirt, inside the dress. We sublimate our emotions, turning gray flat ashes into brilliant, sparkling diamonds.
It must have meant so much to her, that locket. It must have felt like a piece of her broken heart, an emotional wound made wearable and beautiful.
“If we can be called best at anything,” writes mortician and author Caitlin Doughty in From Here to Eternity, “it would be at keeping our grieving families separated from their dead.” She goes to a village in Indonesia, where dead bodies are paraded through the streets while mourners keen and wail and cheer; Mexico, where mummies sit on altars waiting for families to come and give them gifts; and Japan, where family members visit a high-tech crematorium to gather up fragments of their lost and loved with chopsticks. To Americans, she admits, these customs may seem disrespectful. But they are not. They’re ways of working through grief. Giving mourners a task grants them purpose and a sense of control. Giving mourners a public space to celebrate their dead offers much-needed moments of physical and emotional catharsis. Giving mourners access to the dead body provides a sense of closeness and closure.
American culture lacks these rituals. Instead, we have single-day funerals. We have mass-produced headstones, mass-produced urns, mass-produced lockets that allow us to minimize loss without moving through it. There is no federal law that grants paid bereavement leave, not even for the death of a spouse or a child. Your interior world may have collapsed, but you are still expected to prove your worth. Grieve, but be productive.
Peters argues that hair art isn’t morbid, but rather a healthy sign that people can “live with” grief. I’m not so sure. I tend to agree more with McLaughlin, who stresses the locked-away part of the locket. “Lately, I feel like everything is about control,” says McLaughlin. “The world is bursting into flames around us and there’s basically nothing we can do about it, so instead we cling harder to the tiny things that mean something to us.” And maybe, she adds, the act of keeping these things “close and hidden away from others heightens that feeling of safety and control.” We don’t come together and howl in grief. We don’t keen at the sky or wail around the pyre or hold our dead tightly and brush their hair.
I have a cousin who died young from suicide. He was a few years older than me, and I spent the first sixteen years of my life looking up to him. He painted his nails with sparkly blue polish and dyed his hair black. He could do an incredible Irish accent. He took drugs and defended me from the worst abuses of my older brother. He was protective of me, and I loved him for it. I have very few memories of the funeral. I was deep in a depression of my own, and hadn’t yet discovered the value of medication. Many of my memories from those years are foggy and insubstantial, clouded by grief, marijuana, and hormones. I sometimes re-read the guestbook at Legacy.com where people write him messages. I receive email alerts when new posts are added. I am glad it exists, but it feels terribly incomplete. In grief, everything feels incomplete.
I do not have a necklace with a locket holding his dyed hair, but I do have a tiny little pill container that attaches to my key ring. In it, I have three pills. They soothe me, they calm me, they give me a sense of control. It’s with me at all times. I have often dared to imagine a world where I didn’t need them. Where I could cry in public, wail on the street, get snot and tears on my good clothes. Where I could allow emotions to be as big as they needed to be. Until then, I have my version of the poison ring, the pomander ball, the little locket, designed to protect. Designed to contain.
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Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor based in Maine whose work has appeared in Art New England, Boston magazine, The Paris Review, The Hairpin, Eater, Jezebel, and The New York Times Magazine. She’s also the author of the book Handcrafted Maine.
I know as much about classical music as I do car mechanics, which is close to nothing, but I do know I like it. Not choruses. I’m not a fan of things like Bach’s choral works. And as much as I appreciate Mozart, his best work is too tempestuous for me. I prefer chillaxed baroque chamber music. I prefer Bach’s Orchestral Suites and Brandenburg Concertos. And Franz Schubert, Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Handel’s Water Music, “Pachelbel’s Canon,” and the kind of sprightly, buttoned-up small group sound that fits quiet workday mornings and cups of tea. If there’s anything I’m not, it’s buttoned-up, so my particular love of chamber music still surprises me. Bad Brains’ fast songs and Dead Moon’s gritty guitars sound like my spirit feels, but I’m a Gemini, and my opposite side is contemplative, calm, and still, suited to reggae, jazz piano trios, and Schubert’s Octets. I find that kind of classical soothing. Maybe it counteracts the blaring amplified guitar part of me. Whatever it does, I like it.
I first discovered classical music’s charms as an undergrad, during a period when Fugazi and instrumental surf music dominated my stereo. Cruising the listening stations at those chain mega-bookstores that thrived in the ’90s, with their stuffed rows of books, CDs, and bustling cafes, I found a few classical CDs that were well-reviewed and gave them a try. Where rock ‘n’ roll normally provided the soundtrack to my innumerable college road trips, the Brandenburg Concertos played on a certain winter trip to the mountains of southern California. It did not fit. Speeding along San Bernardino freeways, the charged up cellos made me feel like I was preparing to storm a castle. Driving in the forested mountains to hike old-growth pine forests, Bach’s music made it sound more like study time than bushwhacking time, but I liked the mood it provided, and I liked that the mood felt new. By the late ’90s, I’d grown tired of boot-stomping guitar bands and needed a break. As Fugazi sang in their song “Target”: “It’s cold outside and my hands are dry / Skin is cracked and I realize / That I hate the sound of guitars.” After a break, I came back to loud guitars, but I returned with more varied tastes and a diversified music collection that put Tchaikovsky albums next to ones by T. Rex and jazz trumpeter Thad Jones.
Classical music can seem so staid. It’s easy to imagine the kind of people who perform and listen to it being repressed, teetotalling stiffs who haven’t had sex, let alone a good buzz, for years. Blair Tindall’s book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music proves that assumption wrong. Taking us inside this relatively insular subculture, which is lived backstage in concert halls, recitals, and academia, this insider’s portrait shows classical musicians who are as wild and deviant as rock ‘n’ rollers, and a subculture as dramatic as any other. As a young deviant myself, I was impressed. Her book, and the music, led me to read more about classical history and performance.
Here are a few interesting explorations of classical music history, practice, and performance that might help you hear the music, and think of its culture, differently, too.
Classical music can seem so staid that you don’t associate it with shock or revolution, but Beethoven’s Third Symphony has continued to shock people since the composer first performed it in April of 1805. Writer Justin Davidson loves the piece, and keeps coming back to it.
If I could crash any cultural event in history, it would be the night in April 1805 when a short man with a Kirk Douglas chin and a wrestler’s build stomped onto the stage of the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Ludwig van Beethoven, 34 years old and already well along the way to deafness, swiveled to face a group of tense musicians and whipped them into playing a pair of fist-on-the-table E-flat major chords (blam! … blam!), followed by a quietly rocking cello melody. If I listen hard enough, I can almost transport myself into that stuffy, stuccoed room. I inhale the smells of damp wool and kerosene and feel the first, transformative shock of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” as it exploded into the world.
But Davidson also recognizes the way shocking, profound art or ideas — things that were once revolutionary — grow familiar enough to be tame over time. “Beethoven toyed with expectations we do not have and dismantled conventions that no longer guide us,” writes Davidson. “As a result, the ‘Eroica,’ which emerged with such blinding energy that some of its first listeners thought its composer must be insane, sounds like settled wisdom to us.”
Why do we reenact these rituals of revolution when revolution is no longer at stake? How can an act of artistic radicalism retain the power to disturb after two centuries? What’s left when surprise has been neutralized and influence absorbed?
“The world of classical music is neither noble nor fair,” Wagner writes, “though its reputation says otherwise.” Wagner played violin since her parents first rented her one when she was 4. After accruing $44,000 of student loan debt and developing carpal tunnel in college, she quit music and switched careers. “Despite its reputation as being a pastime of the rich and cultured elite, classical musicianship is better understood as a job, a shitty job, and the people who do that job are workers just as exploited as any Teamster.” Her illuminating essay reveals the true story about low pay, limited job opportunities, and rented instruments, which is the story of “arts under capitalism, in a culture where the abandonment of government funding results in a void filled only by wealthy donors and bloodsucking companies.” In the process, her essay dismantles the fundamental American myth of meritocracy and access.
Classical music is cruel not because there are winners and losers, first chairs and second chairs, but because it lies about the fact that these winners and losers are chosen long before the first moment a young child picks up an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you study composition, devote years to an instrument, or simply have the desire to teach—either at the university level or in the public school system. If you come from a less-than-wealthy family, or from a place other than the wealthiest cities, the odds are stacked against you no matter how much you sacrifice, how hard you work, or, yes, how talented you are.
Unlike parrots, Starlings do not repeat back what you sing to them, but they transmute, scramble, and modify your singing enough to give you a new view of it. When the young Mozart whistled at a caged starling in a Vienna shop, the way the bird sang it back changed how Mozart heard his song, and how he wrote, and he immediately bought the bird.
There is no other live-animal purchase in Mozart’s expense book, and no more handwritten melodies; no additional transactions were praised as schön! This is one of the very few things we even know about his purchasing habits. He’d only begun tracking his spending that year, and by late summer, Mozart had abandoned the practice and only used that notebook to steal random phrases of English. So this note of sale is special among the extant scraps from his life.
The purchase of this bird, Mozart’s “Vogel Staar,” marks a critical point for the classical period. At the end the of eighteenth century, tunes were never more sparkling or more kept, their composers obsessive over the rhetoric of sonata form: first establishing a theme, then creating tension through a new theme and key, then stretching it into a dizzying search for resolution, and finally finding the resolve in a rollicking coda. The formal understanding of this four-part structure permeated classical symphony, sonata, and concerto. By 1784, sonata form had imprinted itself on the listening culture enough to feel like instinct; Vienna audiences could rest comfortably in the run of classical forms as familiar—and thus enjoyable—narratives. And nobody played this cagey game more giddily than Mozart.
The Threepenny Penny review editor Wendy Lesser has written frequently about classical music. In 2010, she sat in a New York City concert hall in complete darkness for an hour, listening to a performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’ third string quartet. Listening was all the audience could do. “We were unable to see our hands before our faces, much less check our watches or glance at our companions,“ she wrote. It was an experiment: how did sensory deprivation change the listening experience? Would the experience have been different with music she’d previously heard?
Sitting in the dark at a concert is a way of being at once alone and in the company of others. As I explored my unusual and tourist feeling of privacy (stretching about in ways I would never do in a lit concert hall, yawning widely, tilting my head way back or lackadaisically from side to side, and repeatedly holding my hands in front of my face to see if they had become visible yet), I thought of D.W. Winecott’s notion about how the child learns to be alone in the presence of its mother – that is, the baby gets to test out being solitary and accompanied at the same time. I imagined I was enjoying this childish sensation immensely, and yet on some level I must have felt a bit of fear or anxiety too, as I realized during my wild head-tilts, when I discovered that the room was not actually completely dark. There were two rows very faint almost-lights barely visible in the ceiling, and another ghostly spot at the very back of the room – and this, strangely, filled me with the same kind of energetic hope that hostages and TV thrillers feel when they come up on a nail or some other sharp protrusion against which they can slowly fray away their binding ropes. But try as I might, I could not free myself from the darkness: I could never manage to see a thing, not even my pale hands waved directly in front of my face. Once, in a moment of casual listening such as one might do at a regular concert, I closed my eyes, and the shock when I opened them and perceived no difference at all with severe.
The story’s subhead “Rescuing Sibelius from silence” is vague and cryptic, but this is the story of Finland’s greatest composer, arguably what Ross calls its ”chief celebrity in any field.”
Composing music may be the loneliest of artistic pursuits. It is a laborious traversal of an imaginary landscape. Emerging from the process is an artwork in code, which other musicians must be persuaded to unravel. Nameless terrors creep into the limbo between composition and performance, during which the score sits mutely on the desk. Hans Pfitzner dramatized that moment of panic and doubt in “Palestrina,” his 1917 “musical legend” about the life of the Italian Renaissance master. The character of Palestrina speaks for colleagues across the centuries when he stops his work to cry, “What is the point of all this? Ach, what is it for?”
The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius may have asked that question once too often. The crisis point of his career arrived in the late 1920s and the early 30s, when he was being lionized as a new Beethoven in England and America, and dismissed as a purveyor of kitsch in the tastemaking European music centers, where atonality and other modern languages dominated the scene. The contrasts in the reception of his music, with its extremes of splendor and strangeness, matched the manic depressive extremes of his personality—an alcoholic oscillation between grandiosity and self-loathing. Sometimes he believed that he was in direct communication with the Almighty (“For an instant God opens the door and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony,” he wrote in a letter) and sometimes he felt worthless. In 1927, when he was sixty-one, he wrote in his diary, “Isolation and loneliness are driving me to despair….In order to survive, I have to have alcohol….I’m abused, alone, and all my real friends are dead. My prestige here at present is rock bottom. Impossible to work. If only there were a way out.”
Birds are among nature’s greatest musicians. “The 20th and 21st centuries teemed with birdsong quotations in music,“ Giovetti in an essay of surprising connections, “from Amy Beach’s “Hermit Thrush at Eve” to John Luther Adams’s “Canticles of the Holy Wind.” But the era has most closely been associated with Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). As a teenager in Aube, he began to notice the avian world.“ Humans have matched nature’s beauty with our own beautiful music and ugliness.
In the video of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in Central Park, this same shift takes place in Amy Cooper’s voice when she calls the police. It’s so uncanny it may as well have been part of a score.
“I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she tells Christian as she dials. She repeats “African-American” twice with the dispatcher. When it seems like she needs to explain the situation a third time, her tone modulates from steady (although perhaps slightly heightened by adrenaline and stress) to screaming in shorter breaths: “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble, please send the cops immediately!”
“Strategic White Womanhood is a spectacle that permits the actual issue at hand to take a back seat to the emotions of the white woman, with the convenient effect that the status quo continues,” writes Ruby Hamad in her forthcoming book, White Tears/Brown Scars. “White women’s tears are fundamental to the success of whiteness. Their distress is a weapon that prevents people of colour from being able to assert themselves or effectively challenge white racism and alter the fundamental inequalities built into the system. Consequently, we all stay in the same place while whiteness reigns supreme, often unacknowledged and unnamed.”
“Prodigies exist in every field,” Welscher writes. “But since the time of Leopold Mozart, who dragged his son through the drawing rooms of Europe’s nobility like a trained monkey, the prodigal youngster has become a familiar, peculiar trope in classical music hagiography.” What is it about the idea of in-born genius, of the gifted child destined for greatness, that captivates so many cultures? America in particular fails to empathize for the talented childhood whose lives permanently suffer from the way their parents and society use them as commodities. Welscher exposes the ethical dimensions of the prodigy complex, what he beautifully calls “the darker side of prodigy reception,” focusing on coverage the 10-year old composer Alma Deutscher received.
In a profile of Deutscher for Die Zeit, the well-known journalist Uwe Jean Heuser asks, “Who is this child who, at the age of 10, is capable of amazing an ambitious, knowledgeable audience?” Isn’t the real question: Who is this audience that allows itself to be amazed by a child? Is “ambitious” or “knowledgeable” really the right way to describe an audience that is satisfied by “poise and skill,” when it should expect communicated life experience, storytelling, expression? Are these qualities really so much harder to judge in musicians? As Solomon writes, “Musical prodigies are sometimes compared to child actors, but child actors portray children; no one pays to watch a six-year-old playing Hamlet.”
So few people publish long stories about classical music that Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, appears in this list twice. Classical music, once such a provincial Western music, had taken up residence inside Communist China. “For the past fifteen or twenty years, classical music has been very à la mode in China,“ one accomplished composer told Ross. Ross visited Beijing to investigate if China was indeed the future of classical music. Ross found a classic music culture that reflected Communist China of that time: suppressed, well-polished and publicized in a self-serving propoganda-type way, and fraught with the tension between the freedom practitioners wanted and what little freedom they had.
For a musician on Long Yu’s level, politics is unavoidable. Since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the Party has discouraged dissent not just by clamping down on rebellious voices but by handsomely rewarding those who play it safe. Richard Kraus, in his book The Party and the Arty in China, writes, “By 1982, the Party had given up trying to purge all dissident voices and opted instead for the strategy of urging all arts organizations to strive to earn money. “Those who work within the system may be expected to reach the stage where they can win prizes, obtain sinecures, hold illustrious posts, and we will paid for teaching. Artists end up censoring themselves – a habit ingrained in Chinese history. Behind the industrious façade is a fair degree of political anxiety. Reviews often read like press releases; indeed, I was told that concert organizations routinely pay journalist to provide favorable coverage. Critics feel pressure to deliver positive judgments, and, if they don’t, they may be reprimanded or hounded by colleagues. One critic I talked to got fed up and quit writing about music all together.
“Crowd Control” (Wendy Lesser, The Threepenny Review, Spring 2008)
As with Ross, Lesser writes so well, and so distinctly, about classical music, that this list would be insincere not to include another piece. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t appear online for free in full, but it’s too unique not to include. Watching an orchestra, you can’t miss the conductor, but it takes effort to truly see them. After watching one conductor, Simon Rattle, lead the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 2008, Lesser trained her lens on him to examine the conductor’s larger triumphs, challenges, and contribution to orchestral performance.
Whenever a conductor lifts his arms, points his fingers, or gestures with his head, he is actually controlling thousands of body parts. These include (among others) the right arms and left fingers of the string players, the hands and lungs of the woodwinds, the lips of the brass section, the writes of the percussionists, and the eyes and ears of all the musicians performing under him. But the body parts also include the eyes, ears, lungs, and hands of those of us out there in the audience; we too are watching his characteristic movements, listening for the notes, catching our breaths, bringing our palms together in applause. The control can never be perfect, in regard to either the bodies onstage or those off it, and that is a good thing, because robots can neither play nor appreciate music. But to the extent a conductor’s control approaches perfection, in a Zeno’s Paradox-like fashion, without ever getting there, we in the audience stand to benefit. Listening to the Berlin Philharmonic perform under Simon Rattle, one has a sense of what that near-perfection might sound like.
Hive is a Longreads series about women and the music that has influenced them.
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As a teenager, Luther Vandross co-founded his favorite singer’s fan club. I can see him now, watching her seasoned shoulder bounce and measuring the funk in the Black church two-step she makes in post–chitlin circuit venues. He’s standing stage left, holding onto the curtain for balance; he’s lip-synching every song, calculating the mastery of her diction and phrasing; he’s studying her like a text, setting the stage for his own practice — one that would place him at microphones behind David Bowie, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Cissy Houston, and Donna Summer. This Luther was Twenty Feet from Stardom and rising.
Young but wise, Luther Vandross the teenage boy understood how Patricia Louise Holt from Philadelphia became the legendary kick-your-shoes-off and snatch-your-own-wig when the tension builds between music, voice, and audience type of singer. Luther Vandross presided over the fan club of none other than Ms. Patti LaBelle.
Strange things happen when an artist is moved to a new depth by another. We become fanatical about the fantastical beings who place us deeper into the abyss of craft. The management of details of who these artists are and how they come into being become a rite of passage. We obsess over the decisions they make to bring an album to fruition and take pride in knowing as much as we can, from the major to the minor: collaborations, music video direction, hair color, shoe size, inspiration behind the lyrics. We fancy ourselves experts of our muses. And when it comes to Black music, the stakes are higher — people stay questioning our responses to the brilliance of Black artists; reading them as tribal reactions as opposed to a focused study of mastery. But no. I’m from the school of Luther — and by that, I mean I’m a listener committed to homemade scholarship, community-based research questions, and an organic framework to interpret the artistic offerings of those I crown as legends.
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There’s a strong chance that I became the unofficial president of the artist Joi’s fan club 25 years ago. For 25 years, I’ve paid attention to her musical movement and to the ways she holds court on stage. Today, I feel confident that if asked to write a dissertation that argues the genius of what I refer to as her crunk-funk sound, I’d have my Ph.D. Dr. DJ Lynnée Denise. Joi occupies space in the lineage of artists who thrive across genre lines. How is that possible? Ask Prince, ask Aretha, ask Nina, ask Stevie. Black people live hyphenated lives, so it’s fair to say our musicians embody and shift the context of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness,” musical cross-pollination made available to the Souls of Black Folk.
The three of us — Joi, Du Bois, and myself — have something in common: Nashville.
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I saw Joi for the first time while I was sitting in the living room with a group of artists I met during my freshman year at Fisk University. She was in a video wearing a trench coat, hanging on a meat hook in a blue-lit walk-in meat refrigerator. She was squirming on beat with the hope of being released. The video was for her first single, “Sunshine & the Rain.”
Black people live hyphenated lives, so it’s fair to say our musicians embody and shift the context of what Du Bois called ‘double consciousness,’ musical cross-pollination made available to the Souls of Black Folk.
It was Du Bois who taught me about the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a masterful a cappella ensemble, who with their carefully crafted compositions saved the university from collapsing in the face of mounting financial struggles in 1871. They toured cities along the route of the Underground Railroad using harmony to trace the path of freedom before eventually landing a paid gig in England, performing for its Queen. Du Bois graduated from Fisk in 1888, 109 years before I did. In his famed essay “Of the Sorrow Songs,” credited by Black theologian James H. Cone as one of the first pieces of writing in the 20th century to treat Black music with serious academic inquiry, Du Bois reflects on Fisk’s institutional significance: “To me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past.”
In 1993, I stepped onto the campus of Fisk University less than three months after the L.A. Riots. I had Latasha Harlins on my mind: a young Black woman who was gunned down by a Korean shop owner in South Central Los Angeles for allegedly stealing an orange juice. When the shop owner was sentenced to probation in November 1991, less than six months before a jury acquitted the officers responsible for the beating of Rodney King, L.A. blew up in flames. I arrived on campus with inspiration brought on by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insightful observation that riots are “the language of the unheard.” That outburst of symbolic rage brought me a sense of peace. With one suitcase and a green trunk plastered with stickers that ranged from images of Marley to Meat is Murder slogans, I showed up ready to learn and receive.
Upon arrival, an upperclassman escorted me to Jubilee Hall’s third floor, and just as Du Bois described, it was pristine, brick-based, and towering above my West Coast head. In this place of Black music history, I had a room of my own and a branch from Joi’s family tree was down the street.
Joi is the daughter of legendary NFL football player Joe Gilliam. A member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was the franchise’s first Black quarterback to start as a season opener. Both Joe and Joi were legacy students at the historically Black public university Tennessee State, walking distance from Fisk.
The local artists in the room witnessing me witness Joi’s video for the first time knew who she was and dismissed my awe with, “Oh that’s Joi.” I was in her hometown. She was their hero. “Joi from down here,” they said with regional pride from blunt stained lips. “She been on that different shit for years.” I took that to mean Joi was ahead of her time and an inspiration to the folks who watched her take shape.
Her absence in the city of Nashville, or more accurately the ghost of her dopeness, made me think about what it meant to leave home in order to be seen. Like when your ambition outgrows your zip code and the only way forward, as you’ve been told through myriad migration narratives, is to move north from the South; even though what you offer the North is rooted in the back-homeness of the funky South. Joi journeyed to Atlanta — 250 miles below Tennessee. She complicated the idea that Southern folks have to leave the region to become known or relevant. So, when André 3000 proclaimed at the 1995 Source Awards that “the South got something to say,” Joi was one of the leaders in saying, through her music, what needed to be said.
[Joi] complicated the idea that Southern folks have to leave the region to become known or relevant.
After my encounter with the “Sunshine & the Rain” video, I listened to the song on repeat for what felt like a year. It filled the void created by LaFace’s TLC and the Sean Puffy girl group hip-hop soul phase that I struggled to embrace as I was figuring out my own listening practice on an HBCU campus where musical tastes were shaped, almost exclusively, by homecoming anthems and Top 40 hits. Don’t get me wrong, I loved to see the Chicago students at Fisk rush to the dance floor when hearing the first two bars of the “Percolator,” and I fucked with Mary J. Blige from day one and still do. But I had real questions about the war on originality that was creeping into the Black musical lexicon in a Bad Boy kinda way. The art of sampling was now complicated by intellectual property laws and there was less cutting and scratching, which meant that turntablism was, in certain ways, becoming a less crucial, or at the very least a less prominent, part of the sonic footprint of the culture. Plus, audiences of the music seemed to be growing less and less concerned with the original songs — and by default less concerned with the Black musical lineages shaping my ear as a DJ. It was a pivotal moment for me, defined by my acceptance of the loneliness that comes with walking against trends. I made up for it by going in deep. I had a campus radio show on WFSK where I organized weekly themes that explored different eras and genres of Black music: Black women funk artists 1970–1975. New Wave 1983–1987. Jazz trumpeters 1963–1969. In the face of my early days of digging through the crates, the corporatization of hip-hop was creating what music scholar Harold Pride calls “pedestrian listeners” out of my peers and further alienating lesser known artists whose work stretched listeners with innovation. For me, Joi was a bridge.
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Dallas Austin is one of the minds who, alongside Pebbles, gave the world TLC. Around the exact same time, Austin was working on Joi’s debut album The Pendulum Vibe — together they created a call to arms for folks looking for sophisticated melodies and enough lyrical depth to drown in. Songs like “Fatal Lovesick Journey” had me pondering codependent relationships while puffing Black & Milds and drinking Alizé. There was well-placed wailing, playful and unapologetic sexual confidence, and a genre-defying Southern-rooted sound. Anti-formulaic, the music from this album spoke to my heart and gave me hope that Black America had something to compare to the brilliant U.K. soul coming out of London. Though raunchier in her approach, Joi was in the Mica Paris and Caron Wheeler category for me. I even had fantasies of her settling down in London like Jhelisa and her cousin Carleen Anderson did in the ’90s, leaving their Black American (Mississippi, Texas) imprint on the British sound and reinforcing Paul Gilroy’s notion of the Black Atlantic.
I recognized these women and Joi as kindred spirits. After about the 50th listen of the Pendulum Vibe (and after spending that year with “Sunshine & the Rain”), I sat myself down and said with all honesty, “This a bad bitch and the masses ain’t gon’ understand.” Predictably, critics have long used the abstract term the underground in describing the spirit of Joi’s work. I’m skeptical of the word “underground” because it makes an assumption about what success looks like and sometimes strips the agency of artists who don’t aspire to have commercial appeal.
But was I happy to have an “underground” to turn to when H-Town wasn’t enough? Yes indeed. Sitting with the work of these artists, both from America and overseas, felt like a humanizing way to break from the overly familiar. Humanizing because the music compelled me to listen with insatiable curiosity. Something that white men who own record stores and collect Black music are not only allowed but encouraged to do. Knowing that Joi existed was a way for me to stay aligned with wayward women. Excavating their sonic stories, the way Saidiya Hartman does Gladys Bentley’s, became a primary interest to me. Joi was a gateway into a world made up of women musicians who, compared to their male counterparts, were pushed to the sidelines of Black music history — Nona Hendryx, Lyn Collins, and the women of George Clinton’s P-Funk empire: The Brides of Dr. Funkenstein and Parlet. Embedded in Joi’s vocal cords is a deep knowledge of Funkentelechy and “Dandelion Dust” cosmology, a heavy load of legacy to carry. I was a believer.
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Ever since I can remember, I’ve been one of those people who rolls their eyes when I hear my favorite song from a new album that I’m spending time with being played on the radio. I’m suspicious of what becomes widely accepted, afraid to see the artists I love hand over their authenticity to the police of mediocrity guarding the door of pop music in America. And yeah, everybody gotta eat, but why eating gotta equate to contractual agreements that alter your purpose? Prince’s decision to pen the word “slave” on his face in the ’90s gave us an idea of what can happen when sitting down at the negotiating table with corporations who measure your worth by your marketability. Our collective ear becomes less sophisticated, we develop a forgetfulness that separates us from our pasts. I wanted to keep Joi in my personal library of “underground” artists where she was protected from the fuckery — following her own North Star to musical freedom like the Jubilee Singers.
Joi’s recorded performances embodied all the funkiness my little soul had been waiting for at a time when Black radio was pinned under the thumb of payola. She’s cut from the same cloth as Jimi Hendrix, Betty Davis, and Vanity. One minute she gives you seasoned performer on a FunkJazz Kafe stage alongside Too $hort; then range and multidimensionality on stage with FishBone and De La Soul the next. I traveled to see both of those shows from Fisk University, leaving “the yard” for places like Memphis and Atlanta to experience Joi in action. My fellow Joi-chasing friend and I coordinated our travels so that we could make it back in time for 10 a.m. classes the following morning; driving along the highway, we passed various symbols of the Confederacy — flags, bumper stickers, and Cracker Barrels. We were two women from Cali on a mission. We invested time and our scarce college-level income into loving her work because Joi always delivered, which made the payoff immediate.
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Between 1996 and 2006, Joi recorded three more studio albums. Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome, from 1997, became a highly desired cult classic, shelved before its release due to the collapse of EMI. It was then picked up by FreeWorld, Dallas Austin’s newly formed label following EMI’s collapse, which folded shortly after. Fortunately, it can now be purchased through her website, a gift for fans who were searching high and low for a copy. Her next two albums were 2002’s Star Kitty’s Revenge and 2006’s Tennessee Slim is the Bomb, which was released on Raphael Sadiq’s Pookie Records. The music industry’s instability led Joi to reissue both albums independently, in the spirit of Prince. He had become one of the first major artists to market his albums through a personal website to be in direct conversation with fans in an effort to cut out the middle men — middle men who were typically attached to the bodies of white record company executives or Black music moguls like Berry Gordy or Suge Knight who modeled their music businesses after them.
Joi’s recorded performances embodied all the funkiness my little soul had been waiting for at a time when Black radio was pinned under the thumb of payola. She’s cut from the same cloth as Jimi Hendrix, Betty Davis, and Vanity.
In addition to her solo work, Joi had a major hand in shaping the Atlanta Dungeon Family/Organized Noize sound. She sang background on Goodie Mob’s classic first album Soul Food. Equally impressive was her work on projects with a range of artists like George Clinton, Sleepy Brown, Big Krit, 2 Chainz, Queen Latifah, and Tricky from London. She collaborated with Raphael Sadiq’s on his Lucy Pearl project, replacing former En Vogue songstress Dawn Robinson and adding a welcomed edge to the group’s live performances. In addition to studio collaboration, she joined Outkast on their final tour in 2014 and was a backing vocalist for D’Angelo’s The Second Coming Tour in 2015. And still, with curriculum vitaé in hand, Joi found time to help, as she would say, “wipe down” a few aspiring singers through her artist development business, Artisan Polishing.
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The very first time I met Joi was in Nashville in 1995. With the same woman I had traveled to Memphis for Joi’s shows, I was trying my hand at concert promotion. We had a little money, a venue, and enough love for Joi’s two-album catalog to take a chance. Within a week, Joi agreed to perform for an amount that had little to do with what was acceptable for her craft and effort and more to do with her willingness to help us see our dreams through and to come home to show her people where she had been. It’s no small feat to have Joi on your roster of events as a young promoter in the industry, and she gave us the cultural capital and experience we needed to break into that world as young Black women. Almost a decade later, I would connect with Joi again when she was featured in an event I produced in Brooklyn called Slum Beautiful: Music from the Gut of Black America in 2010. The title of the event was taken from a song from Outkast’s Stankonia album. I wanted Joi to do the work of reminding New York of its connected history with Black Southern culture and people — it’s a city that tends to forget. The next time I saw Joi was in Atlanta for an event I organized called Erotic City Weekend, bringing the work of Prince and Joi’s unique performances back together again.
In 2015, I made my way back home to Los Angeles after being away for nearly 20 years. Synchronicity had it so that Joi had left Atlanta and moved there a few years before me. We connected on a more personal level and spent significant time talking about our shared love of the many interconnections of Black music. It was through our conversations that I learned about the Caravans, a 1950s soulful gospel group that featured among its members Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Albertina Walker, and James Cleveland. They were responsible for ushering a new style of gospel that complicated the notion of sacred music with their collective blues ministry sound. She also encouraged me to pay closer attention to Parliament singers Glen Goins, Garry Shider, and Walter “Junie” Morrison, as their voices, too, embodied the tension that exists between Black faith and psychedelic funk. I learned in those moments what it means to be a student of the artform you’re undertaking.
Shortly after landing, I began creating events in L.A. and inviting Joi to make various appearances. My work had taken a turn over the years. I was excited about my developing relationship with the academy, as I had become a lecturer at California State University, Los Angeles in the Pan-African Studies department. I worked closely with the department to shape the social experiences of Black college students who often found themselves at the mercy of and/or ignored in official university events. In 2016, I invited Joi to conduct the Q&A following the screening of the Afro-Punk documentary with the festival’s original founder and the film’s director, James Spooner. During the conversation, Spooner shared with the audience that it was the first time he had been invited to screen his film and talk about the roots of Afro-punk since his departure from what had become a corporate funded cultural institution. Most recently, I invited Joi, along with Jessica Care Moore, to be on a plenary for a conference I coproduced with UCLA in honor of the late, great Aretha Franklin. What I love so much about Joi is her proven record that she is committed to blurring the lines and steeped in the art of interdisciplinarity. She engaged with students, wowed faculty, and in the process, brought a funky sensibility to the art and practice of scholarship. Upon spending a considerable amount of time listening to her latest album, I decided to visit Joi at home, which brought our multi-decade relationship into its third dimension.
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In 2018, Joi sat her ass down in a studio and pulled diamonds from a year of solitude to create her most recent album, S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove. The journey of the album begins with three words that push us to the other side: Bitch I’m Free. S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove is what happens when anticipation meets expectations. It is noteworthy that this album, too, was produced independently. Joi’s is the only voice on the album. Don’t be fooled into thinking that there are three other bad bitches in the studio making it happen. It’s just her. She wrote all the album’s lyrics, arranged all its vocals, and produced some of the tracks. She used very little of the vocal compressor, an effect that most contemporary singers rely on, creating distance between authenticity and the voices you think you love.
Here I was, 25 years after seeing her on a screen swinging on a meat hook, sitting in Joi’s L.A. studio — a live/work space she calls “The Funky Jewelry Box.” Inspirational posters and Dolly Parton, Led Zeppelin, Natalie Cole, and Minnie Riperton album covers draped the walls. It was an incubator for critical artistic thought up in there.
As I settled and began to think about questions that would unlock the door to the mysteries of this project, Joi unwrapped detox products from Dr. Sebi that Erykah Badu had sent her. “It’s a perfect time to fast,” she said, while removing the bubble wrap from a dark brown bottle of bodily goodness. She sat at her recording station in an electric blue velvet cushioned vintage chair, “a rare find from a spot in L.A.,” she bragged, “undiscovered by hipsters and still affordable in its dealings.” The chair, shaped like a throne, was perfect for the matriarchal-themed nature of this album. Above her was a classic studio microphone that looked committed to its job and familiar with the racy nature of Joi’s spirit. There’s an intimacy between the two. We agreed to listen to the album. She pressed play and guided me through the sonic journey — joint in hand, ears on guard.
Joi’s racy songs stand out on the new album, and they have a long history. On “Narcissia Cutie Pie” from Pendulum Vibe, the artist explores sexual fluidity and bright dark fantasies about the spectrum of desire, while songs like “Lick” from Star Kitty’s Revenge and “Dirty Mind” from Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome help us remember sex as a powerful creative tool. S.I.R. Rebekah HolyLove builds on Joi’s collection of sex-positive cantatas with “The Edge,” produced and arranged by Joi with additional editing by Brook D’ Leux. A bass-heavy funk monster that promises listeners a key to cities where “we can fuck until the dawn, making love til’ cherries gone.” Another Paisley Park parallel. I mean, yeah, you’re married boo, but this is a complicated situation, the song implies. Cheating could become an option if good dick [or fill in the blank] is involved, and not many of us are willing to share that kind of ethical vulnerability on wax. And I don’t mean no disrespect to your official union, she asserts, but you fuck me right and you’re mine tonight. We never once forget that Joi is a human being dealing with the most undesirable and the most pleasurably outrageous scenarios that life asks us to consider: infidelity, heartbreak, orgasmic accomplishments. The appeal is that she’s aware of the costs. I’m standing on the edge with you / so if I jump will I fall or fly
S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove is a tribute to an album culture long forgotten. With the push for iTunes singles and music streaming culture, the intimate relating of album between artist and audience has been compromised. The album holds its own against a culture that produces music at a rate almost impossible to enjoy, I’ll be listening to S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove for years to come, and The Pendulum Vibe brought me here years ago. Joi said she drew from various experiences to produce this album. She continued to work on other major projects (both in television and music), without compromising the integrity of her solo work. In her words: “I have one of the most peaceful lives [of] anyone I know, but I recognize that solitude and peace is something I earned and it was necessary for this particular juncture.”
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Writing this piece felt like that time when Patti LaBelle and a fully established writer and producer, Luther Vandross, shared a stage one glorious night in 1985. It’s that moment when student, fan, and gatekeeper of the musical masters graduate into a league of their own, with a platform to articulate the many ways they’ve been shaped; a tribe of fellow artists marked by the legends. And because Joi’s work has been canonized by a global community, my work to unpack her work is really a citational practice. S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove, is on a Black Atlantic continuum — a fantastic voyage will be had. Catch up on your future.
DJ Lynnée Denise was shaped as a DJ by her parents’ record collection. She’s an artist, scholar, and writer whose work reflects on underground cultural movements, the 1980s and electronic music of the African Diaspora. Lynnée Denise coined the phrase ‘DJ Scholarship’ to reposition the role of the DJ from party purveyor to an archivist, cultural custodian, and information specialist.
I had seen Paul Curreri a few times around Charlottesville — pushing a cart around the local Wegmans grocery, drinking seltzer at the brewery, holding his young daughter and wearing a brace on one hand — before I worked up the nerve to write to him.
“I’m not sure if you know I’ve been fairly sidelined for the past five years via hand and vocal problems,” he wrote back. “I shouldn’t necessarily assume you know that. Perhaps you just thought I’ve been lazy as shit.” I told him I didn’t want much of his time; I had kids of my own now, too. “Truly,” he wrote back, “there is always time.”
Over a decade, Curreri had released a body of music that should have made him one of America’s most esteemed songwriters. “Paul Curreri gives what few songwriters can,” Matt Dellinger wrote in The New Yorker in 2002. “It hits you soon and hard that you’re hearing something exquisite.” His first albums, built on country blues foundations, shook with dexterous picking and a voice that keened and yipped and roared. A few early songs functioned like artist statements, little revelations of ethos bound up in the tension between the limits of Curreri’s body and the demands of his music. “If your work is shouting, deep-breasted, from sun-up to sundown, take care,” he sang on 2003’s Songs for Devon Sproule, named for the musician he’d marry a few years later. “In time, a shouter you’ll become.”
For years, Curreri’s work had shouted, and so he became a shouter of singular beauty. Then, he went quiet — slowly, at first, then all of a sudden.
Elizabeth Catlin had just stepped out of the shower when she heard banging on the door. It was around 10 a.m. on a chilly NovemberWednesday in Penn Yan, New York, about an hour southeast of Rochester. She asked her youngest child, Keziah, age 9, to answer while she threw on jeans and a sweatshirt. “There’s a man at the door,” Keziah told her mom.
“He said, ‘I’d like to question you,” Caitlin tells me. A woman also stood near the steps leading up to her front door; neither were in uniform. “I said, ‘About what?’” The man flashed a badge, but she wasn’t sure who he was. “He said, ‘About you pretending to be a midwife.’”
Catlin, a home-birth midwife, was open about her increasingly busy practice. She’d send birth announcements for her Mennonite clientele to the local paper. When she was pulled over for speeding, she’d tell the cop she was on her way to a birth. “I’ve babysat half of the state troopers,” she says.
It was30 degrees. Catlin, 53, was barefoot. Her hair was wet. “Can I get my coat?” she asked. No. Boots? She wasn’t allowed to go back inside. Her older daughter shoved an old pair of boots, two sizes too big, through the doorway; Catlin stepped into them and followed the officer and woman to the car. At the state trooper barracks, she sat on a bench with one arm chained to the wall. There were fingerprints, mug shots, a state-issue uniform, lock-up. At 7:30 p.m. she was finally arraigned in a hearing room next to the jail, her wrists and ankles in chains, on the charge of practicing midwifery without a license. Local news quoted a joint investigation by state police and the Office of Professional Discipline that Catlin had been “posing as a midwife” and “exploiting pregnant women within the Mennonite community, in and around the Penn Yan area.”
Catlin’s apparent connection with a local OB-GYN practice, through which she had opened a lab account, would prompt a second arrest in December, the Friday before Christmas, and morefelony charges: identity theft, falsifying business records, and second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument. That time, she spent the night in jail watching the Hallmark Channel. When she walked into the hearing room at 8:00 a.m., again in chains, she was met by dozens of women in grey-and-blue dresses and white bonnets. The judge set bail at $15,000 (the state had asked for $30,000). Her supporters had it: Word of her arrest had quickly passed through the tech-free community, and in 12 hours they had collected nearly $8,000 for bail; Catlin’s mother made up the difference. She was free to go, but not free to be a midwife.
Several years back, a respected senior midwife faced felony charges in Indiana, and the county prosecutor allowed that although a baby she’d recently delivered had not survived, she had done nothing medically wrong — but she needed state approval for her work. The case, the New York Times wrote, “was not unlike one against a trucker caught driving without a license.” As prosecutor R. Kent Apsley told the paper, “He may be doing an awfully fine job of driving his truck. But the state requires him to go through training, have his license and be subject to review.”
But what if the state won’t recognize the training or grant a license?
Catlin is a skilled, respected, credentialed midwife. She serves a rural, underserved, uninsured population. She’s everything the state would want in a care provider. But owing to a decades-old political fight over who can be licensed as a midwife, she’s breaking the law. Read more…