S15BosseJoanna Bosse is an associate professor of ethnomusicology and dance studies at Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University. She answered some questions about her book Becoming Beautiful: Ballroom Dance in the American Heartland. In the book she explores the transformations undergone by the residents of a Midwestern town when they step out on the dance floor for the very first time.

Q: What draws those with little dance experience into the world of ballroom?

Joanna Bosse: I think many adults in the U.S. are seeking ways to be physical and creative. As a population, I think we are still struggling to find a way to do this organically: our work and family lives take over and we put our mental and physical health on the back burner. At some point, and for many of the ballroom dancers I worked with, they began to dance after a major transition in their family life. Either their kids moved away to college or they divorced or experienced the death of a spouse. This transition creates a space that needs to be filled and many turn to dance to find a better balance than in the life they had before.

Ballroom is not the only avenue for this kind of thing, but it is particularly well-suited to this role. It was designed for adults with little dance experience and as such, the beginning “basic” steps require not much more than walking. Slowly one moves from essentially walking in time to dancing and the transition is almost seamless. The fear of taking risks and trying something new slowly erodes under the positive reinforcement that each dance experience can provide. It is powerful and meaningful. Continue reading

It is the time of the year when we enjoy the soil’s miraculous bounty. Plant a little seed in the ground, add water and sun, and marvel as this humble recipe yields sprawling watermelon vines, mountains of green beans, and more pumpkins than you could use in a hundred years. Yet, like all things, dirt has its problems. Moms complain about it being tracked in by children. The devout worry that it pollutes our popular culture. And scientists worry that we are using up the very soil beneath our feet, a real emergency, as we’re no longer allowed to restore fertility with human sacrifice.

The scholarly and small press world provides plenty of dirt on dirt in all its guises and meanings.

montgomeryDirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery
University of California Press

Will eroded soil lead to that inevitable dystopia that will make our golden years look like outtakes from Mad Max: Fury Road? This fascinating book doesn’t go that far. But it does sound a warning about soil depletion, yet another of the depredations our species is visiting upon the planet. Roaming from the agriculture of the ancient Nile to our unfortunate modern-day habit of washing fertile soil into the Gulf of Mexico, David Montgomery examines how human have long spent up this essential natural resource, the subsequent effects on even the mightiest of civilizations, and humanity’s possible fates if we don’t change our ways. He also explores the recent rise of organic and no-till farming, seeing in such the hope for a new agricultural revolution that might help us avoid the grim outcomes experienced by our forebears in Mesopotamia, Greece, Kansas, and elsewhere.

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This week is Banned Book Week, one of those observances that never loses its relevance. For proof, turn to the list of frequently challenged books, as charted by the American Library Association. It is a gloomy reminder of fear and small-mindedness, true. But the list also offers hope. America’s Most Challenged has moved beyond perennials like The Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn to include celebrated contemporary novels like Persepolis, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Yes, the young still read!

The reasons behind efforts to ban books, however, are anything but contemporary. In my youth, a time of clay tablets and titles like The Hardy Boys: Mystery of the Missing Hittite Chariot, parents and other divers alliances of busybodies most often aimed their ire at depictions of sex and drugs, the top bugaboos of the 1970s. Not just that stuff, though. One group tried to ban Flowers for Algernon because “it made a big deal over being retarded,” a criticism on a par with banning a dictionary because “it made a big deal over spelling correctly.”

Sex and drugs remain top scourges of the book banning industry. (Sexual content is the most frequent reason schools ban Flowers for Algernon.) But today’s popular complaints also include “anti-family,” “pro-sex education,” “pro-homosexual agenda,” and the always thorny “contains controversial issues.”

Throughout the week, we will blog on various aspects of the banned book issue. UIP, as a publisher, has more skin in this game than most. Like most academic publishing shops we put out a fair number of books that are intended to rock various boats, challenge taboos, and explode conventional thinking. Many of them present a viewpoint that fits into one or more of the categories mentioned in the previous paragraph. They are the kinds of books that give people “funny ideas,” albeit not as funnily as Slaughterhouse-5.

We’re not congratulating ourselves here. We believe in the mission, sure. It serves a purpose in a democratic society. It adds voices we find necessary, timely, and learned, though others may not. We also know we play the long game. The ideas in one of UIP’s academic titles will very possibly need years to percolate, to be challenged and added to and refined, before finally breaking through to the mainstream and changing attitudes. That polite society no longer uses the word retarded in cavalier and cruel ways—nor as a medical term—owes something to the fact millions of us read Flowers for Algernon and thought, you know, that word ain’t cool.

Ideas, if nothing else, are a first step toward making the world a little bit better. A book is an idea given elaboration, a message in a bottle flung into stormy seas with little more than hope that it may do some good, effect some rescue. We just happen to think anyone should get to toss that bottle, and that everyone has the right to pull the cork when it washes ashore.


WilliamsF15Black media pioneer Richard Durham was never an on-air star or featured player. Yet the poet, activist and script writer had a huge influence on how African Americans could be perceived in dramatizations.

As Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom author Sonja Williams told WUNC radio, “he really didn’t mind being in the shadows; out of the spotlight.”

Durham, who was posthumously inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007, created the acclaimed radio series Destination Freedom.  The program, which aired weekly on Chicago’s WMAQ radio in the 1940′s and 1950′s, was a great leap forward from the sterotypes of Sleepy Joe and Amos ‘n’ Andy.

Destination Freedom was, by design, Durham’s attempt to elevate the medium.

“He looked at his writing as a means of promoting and talking about universal principals he believed every human being, wherever they lived, should enjoy,” Williams said.

With profiles of African Americans such as Harriet Tubman, Durham highlighted black history. He also focused on then-contemporary figures like Louis Armstrong and Jackie Robinson, to provide positive role models.

A craftsman and veteran of popular radio fare like The Lone Ranger, Durham was sure to put the drama in radio drama as well. Most episodes of Destination Freedom had a prominent hook to draw in the listener. Whose curiosity wouldn’t be snagged by the title of the episode profiling botanist and inventor George Washington Carver titled: The Boy Who Was Traded for a Horse?

banjoThe University of Illinois Press thinks country and western music hung the moon. Our list of C&W books reads like a who’s who of that musical form’s rhinestone-studded history. You want singers? Our bill features hitmakers and hip shakers like the Singing Sheriff Faron Young, Marty Robbins of “El Paso” fame, Hazel Dickens, and Bob Wills (still the King). There’s studies of rockabilly and Bill C. Malone‘s pioneering look at C&W’s working class roots. There’s the history of Nashville radio station WSM and the stories of touch-of-gold producer Jim Rooney. There’s the never say die Stoneman Family and the laugh ’til you cry roster of country humorists and comedians, only some of whom wore hats. There’s bluegrass, bluegrass, and a little more bluegrass.

We celebrate these books today because this week marks an auspicious anniversary. In the year 1968, Jeanne C. Riley did what music industry execs long considered to be impossible: she topped the pop charts and country charts in Billboard magazine at the same time. The pride of Stamford, Texas, Riley was singing demos and working as a secretary at a music label when a producer dropped Tom T. Hall’s composition “Harper Valley PTA” in her lap. The rest was history.

Here be sassiness. The middle initial alone makes you sit up and pay respect.

“Harper Valley PTA” was a gigantic dominates-the-playlist-for-weeks kind of hit. Though not the first straight country number to rise to the top of the pop charts, it was the few to do so after the genres diverged in the early 1960s—just as the rest of American society was doing some divergin’ of its own. The song’s wide success only proved that, while Americans had their differences, high white boots translated on both sides of the cultural divide.

For the uninitiated, “Harper Valley PTA” kicks off with Riley’s big voice throwing out sass from Word One. A Harper Valley widowed wife gets a letter from the PTA bringing attention to her general running wild. Mini-skirt in place, she heads down to the PTA meeting—I think we can assume in very high heels—and proceeds to clean her out a place. It turns out the Parent Teacher Association has many skeletons in the janitor’s closet. Infidelity. Secretaries mysteriously leaving town. Rampant alcoholism. Exhibitionism. All hail small-town living! It’s entertaining enough up until that point, but then Riley throws in the kind of irresistible line that separates a mere gold record from a six million-seller that inspires a Barbara Eden TV show:

No I wouldn’t put you on
Because it really did, it happened just this way
The day my Mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA!

Fist-pumping woman power triumph, ferocious slide guitar, and a Laugh In! reference. Small wonder the song found listeners everywhere.

Riley had kicked around Nashville a few years before “Harper Valley PTA” vaulted her onto TV, radio, and the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. As is often the case with artists and their breakthrough songs, Riley hated “Harper Valley PTA” at first sight. Not country enough. She recorded it in two takes, with the “socked it to…” line added in the second. Less than an hour’s work for Grammy glory and, more significantly, one of the biggest singles of the 1960s.

roberts dempseySeptember 22, 1927. The date of The Long Count, one of most memorable moments in the annals of pugilism.

In this corner, the heavyweight champion of the world, Gene Tunney, the Fighting Marine.

Opposing him: Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler, keen to get even for his defeat at Tunney’s able hands the previous year.

Yet after six rounds, Dempsey looks finished, his slugging style foiled and undone by Tunney’s ring savvy and technical acumen. Dempsey needs a knockout to defeat Tunney and every one of the 100,000 fans gathered at Soldier Field in Chicago know it. Fifty seconds into the seventh round, Dempsey incredibly appears to have landed the telling blow. Tunney, for the first time in his career, goes down, driven to the doorway of dreamland by two left hooks, and escorted over the threshold by a pair of combinations delivered as he goes to the canvas.

Then the drama began. Reporting from a ringside seat between silent film star Gloria Swanson and Princess Xenia of Greece is Randy Roberts, author of Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler.

Standing in a corner, just a few feet from Tunney, Dempsey waited for the champion either to get up or be counted out. Neither happened. Instead referee Barry yelled at Dempsey to go to the farthest neutral corner, as the rules required. “I’ll stay here,” Dempsey told Barry, as if that was concession enough to the new laws of the ring. Later, Dempsey told Dan Daniel, “I couldn’t move. I just couldn’t. I wanted him to get up. I wanted to kill the sonofabitch.” Barry, however, refused to allow Dempsey to remain near Tunney. So, grabbing Dempsey by the arm, the referee half-shoved, half-escorted him to the farthest neutral corner.

…By the time Barry returned from escorting Dempsey, four seconds had lapsed; in fact, the timekeeper, Paul Beeler, was calling out “five” in order to give Barry a count to pick up. But instead of starting his count at six, Barry shouted “One!” At the count of three–or seven seconds after the knockdown–Tunney lifted his head and looked at Barry. In turn, Barry moved closed to Tunney so that the champion could hear the count above the din of the crowd. At the count of four, Tunney probably could have got up. But that would not have been the intelligent thing to do; the wiser boxer takes a count of nine before he rises. If nothing else, Tunney was an intelligent boxer. He waited until Barry shouted “nine” before he regained his feet.

Tunney recovered, wore Dempsey down and felled him once, and ultimately won in an overwhelming decision. The fight became, and remains still, a cornerstone of boxing lore.

Dempsey’s paycheck, $425,000, was the largest ever received by a challenger. But more important than the money, the drama of the fight meant that Dempsey’s last fight would be remembered for a long time. Listening to the fight on the radio had caused ten men to die of heart failure; half of them died in the seventh round.

Judge for yourself:

RimlerF15Harold Arlen wrote the soundtrack to long nighttime walks on wet streets, to the staring contests we hold with memory out of the windows of our lonely room, to the melancholy poets of heartache who compose their verse around impatient shouts of “last call.” Anyone who dares to love or dream receives an invitation to Arlen’s world. But the invitation remains written in invisible ink, its words emerging only on the evening when The Someone in your life slams the door for the final time, or during that stormy afternoon when you gaze past the sepia-soaked Kansas plains and half-ask, half-plead, “Why can’t I?” and get no answer.

Dylan called Arlen’s pocket universe a “bittersweet, lonely world.” On the nights when one of us sits in Lonelyville (Population: You), Arlen’s songs make us feel better by making us feel even worse.

In The Man That Got Away: The Life and Songs of Harold Arlen, Walter Rimler tells the story behind Judy Garland’s interpretation of an Arlen/Ira Gershwin collaboration that may have gotten you through a tough time or two:

Hours passed before Ira had its opening lines, “The night is bitter / The stars have lost their glitter / The winds grow colder / And suddenly you’re older.” Half a day was spent on “Good riddance, goodbye”—the first three words and five notes of the bridge. For Arlen, bridges were occasions to explore unusual musical territory, and this time he was particularly adventurous. At “fools will be fools,” the melody and harmony seem to lose each other, making it necessary for the singer to thread her way through a sequence of unfriendly, almost atonal chords.

At the end of the song, in the coda, Arlen returns—we don’t know if it was intentionally—to Leonore’s “It sounds like Gershwin” remark and goes ahead and writes like George, pitting the edgy “the night is bitter” music against a fresh and expansive setting of the title phrase—just as Gershwin had joined a nervous countermelody to the famous slow theme of the Rhapsody in Blue.

Arlen knew it was a powerhouse song and thought Ira’s lyric “glorious.” But Ira wanted to wait a while before letting Judy hear it. It isn’t clear why he felt this way. Maybe he was worried that her judgment would be clouded by their close friendship. He was godfather to her and Vincente Minnelli’s daughter Liza, and it was to the Gershwin home that she repaired during the fights that led to the breakup of that marriage. But Harold had no doubt about the song and was eager to play it for her. He told Ira he was going to take a few days off and relax in Palm Springs—knowing that Judy was there with Sid Luft and scriptwriter Moss Hart. Ira knew this, too, and asked Harold not to go there to play them the song. Harold said he had no such intention, that he just needed rest, and drove the hundred miles to the Tamarisk Country Club, found Judy and Sid on the golf course, and walked it with them.

“About the middle of the round,” he recalled, “I started to whistle very softly. I don’t know what tempted me. She was about twenty yards away—it was kind of a tease and I couldn’t stand it. I love Ira and I love Judy, and well, I whistled the main phrase of ‘The Man That Got Away.’” That was all it took. Judy asked him what he was whistling, he gave her a coy “I don’t know,” and she, certain it was a song for the movie, stopped the golf game and took him to the piano in the clubhouse, where he got what he’d come for: a happy moment. Judy loved the song, as did Sid Luft, Moss Hart, and Hart’s wife Kitty Carlisle. They all went “went wild with joy,” as Arlen later recalled.

revell carrPirates. They have a bad reputation. The robbing. The kidnapping. The walking of planks.

But how about the positive things pirates have done? The contributions to fashion. The government-sanctioned predatory actions against the nefarious Spanish. The unwavering support of a rum industry that made Colonial America such a raging success.

And, of course, the singing. In honor of tomorrow’s Talk Like a Pirate Day, the University of Illinois Press alerts fans in the Champaign-Urbana area that nationally known chanteyeuse Chris Madon will lead the Urbana Sea Chantey Singers in a storytelling and singing celebration of eyepatches and Jolly Rogerses. It’s a free show starting at 3 p.m. on September 19 at the Champaign Public Library Main Branch (200 E. Green Street). The library promises a pirate activity, as well.

Never at a loss to inform, UIP also publishes a book on sea chanteys and the men who yo-ho-ho them. James Revell Carr‘s Hawaiian Music in Motion studies how the music of the islands found a way aboard seagoing vessels and eventually spread around the world to make loping rhythms, falsetto yodels, and driving ukuleles indelible parts of American popular music.

No mere landlubber, Carr also spreads the music via slack key guitar and button accordion as he and a wily crew o’ mates tour land and sea alike. In fact, UIP hosts streaming audio of Carr singing classic chanteys like “The Sailor Loves His Bottle-O” and “The King of the Cannibal Islands.”


HofstraF13George Hamilton IV departed the world two years ago today. Unrelated to the actor and tanning phenomenon of the same name, IV, as he was sometimes called, ambled out of North Carolina in his college years to become a teen idol sensation. Later, he went into country music, filling the Sixties charts with hits and, like all of us at the time, turning to folk music for a while. Rather than mosey into retirement when the hits dried up, Hamilton toured the world representing country and western, with noteworthy trips beyond the Iron Curtain to undermine the Hank Williams-less scourge of communism.

Hamilton met up early on with Patsy Cline, subject of the UIP book Sweet Dreams, and the two became big sister-little brother, with Hamilton usually on the short end of that playful relationship. As he recounts in Sweet Dreams:

She walked up to me and said something like, “I’m Patsy Cline. Who are you?” When I said, “George Hamilton IV,” her response (with a hearty laugh) was “the Fourth? What kind of country singer are you?” When I assured her I was a country singer, she replied, “Where are your cowboy boots?” I said, “I ain’t got none—I’m from North Carolina!” Patsy stood there, grinnin’ from ear to ear, and said, “Who do you think you are, Hoss?—the Pat Boone of country music?” (She used to call me “Mr. Goody 2 Shoes,” as well.)

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Meet the UI Press is a recurring feature that delves into issues affecting academic publishing, writing, education, and related topics. Today, industry advice columnist The Bolshevik answers your questions.

bolshevikDear Bolshevik,
During a recent symposium I attended, one of the participants suggested that one might gain a more enthusiastic readership by dropping bon mots of humor into scholarly articles and books. The audience hooted him into silence but I have to admit the idea made sense to me. Any advice on how I can make laffs work as I face the publish-versus-perish dialectic? —Signed, Stand Up Adjunct

Stand Up: A story, if I may. Back in the youthful days of the revolution, one comrade made a very similar suggestion. As he said, the working class had no patience, or time, for theory-choked critiques and thundering manifestos. Better to enlist the tools of the capitalist—pies in the face, hanging from water towers, walking into rakes—to capture the hearts and minds of toilers everywhere. The Party formed a committee to study the issue, and a committee to advise the committee, and then seven sub-committees, one of which consisted entirely of dancing bears. Following years of debate and occasional shootings, the Party concluded that humor indeed had its place in revolutionary agitprop. But since revolutionaries are in general about as funny as a turnip smoothie with a toenail in it, the idea never caught on.

The modern university, thankfully, offers more fertile ground for humor, as clever people from many fields—only some of them Marxists—make up its ranks. To save you the committee-centric rigmarole illustrated above, I have dug out my copy of the Party’s 1923 pamphlet Comrade Splatzky Commits a Boner.  It advises revolutionaries to salt their literature with certain words guaranteed to provide laughter, the better to lower the defenses of the reader and render them ripe for indoctrination. Imagine how much better your scholarly monograph will sound when it includes words like: underwear, booger, eggplant, rough-rider, loo, the piles, diphthong, gob, monkeyshines, rube, and flautist. Good luck.

Dear Bolshevik,
Recently I read a story about a new software package that monitors students’ faces as they take tests, in order to find out if they’re cheating. Rutgers installed the thing even though (1) it had only been patented a few weeks earlier; (2) they had made no effort to protect the privacy of the students. Do you think the Soviet Union would still be around if they had this kind of equipment? Signed, Spies Like Them

Dear Spies: It is stories like this that make me more certain the Soviet Experiment began 100 years too early. As you suppose, international communism would have fared far better against the capitalist West with this kind of social control machinery at its disposal. Though I question whether the software would’ve run on our kerosene-powered computers.