A few years back, while browsing at my local record shop, Soundscapes, I came across an interesting magazine I had never heard of before, called The Oxford American. The magazine, chronicling Southern music, was reasonably priced ($10.95 Canadian, it’s now $11.95 here in Canada and $10.95 U.S) and most intriguingly also contained a double CD celebrating the magazine’s 10th Annual Southern Music issue, which I've since learned always comes out at year’s end. (The magazine, founded in Oxford, Mississippi in 1992, is currently a quarterly published out of The University of Central Arkansas.) The CD contained 56 tracks, including a cool intro by Mississippi native, actor Morgan Freeman, and the music on it spanned the 1920s to the present with well known Southern artists (Lucinda Williams, Eartha Kitt, Isaac Hayes, Jerry Lee Lewis, R.E.M.) appearing alongside more obscure ones (The Insect Trust, Hampton Grease Band, Elton and Betty White). It was a terrific primer to the richness that is Southern music, with wonderfully evocative liner notes in the magazine as well as poems, fiction and some feature pieces on the great and unique variety of Southern life.
http://www.oxfordamerican.org/). The Southern Music issue is now in its 14th installment and began, starting with disc 11, a state by state compilation as opposed to an overall Southern musical gumbo. This 12-year project designed to represent all sixteen Southern states has so far resulted in discs specifically devoted to the music of Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and in 2012, Louisiana. (The Arkansas CD, the inaugural one in the series was actually a double CD, with one disc comprised of general Southern music but the subsequent editions have been single state specific discs.) Together, this detailed and complex musical offering and the accompanying stories and features on what is commonly called the New South go a long way to dispelling the widely held stereotypes of a backwards, inbred region of the U.S. (I confess that I sometimes share that myopic view when I see how overwhelmingly Republican the South is – despite liberal pockets in places like Austin, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia and Durham / Raleigh, North Carolina – and how gun ownership is highest in the Southern U.S. (and Alaska!)) Yes, I know the likes of crass Southern-set ‘reality TV’ shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and others also don’t help educate people on the matter, but it only makes The Oxford American, even though the literary magazine only reaches a fraction of the TV show’s audience, more important and significant than ever.
The current issue of the magazine covers all manner of Louisianan subject matter – from incisive portraits of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Preservation Hall itself, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, to pieces on the significance of New Orleans’ particular jazz aesthetic (by renowned critic Stanley Crouch), and a fascinating analysis by Duncan Murrell on the clash between New Orleans’ musicians and the political hierarchy in the city. There’s even a report on 12 hours spent in a New Orleans strip club and a comic strip about a Iraq veteran’s return to a traumatized post-Katrina New Orleans. The magazine’s accompanying disc encompasses everybody from Dr, John to Professor Longhair, also profiled in the issue, to Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas to artists and groups I’d never heard of, such as The Valparaiso Men’s Chorus and Cleveland Crochet & Hill Billy Ramblers. And it represents every genre of music, funk, soul, R and B, hip-hop, zydeco, Cajun, gospel, rock etc. (I was particularly taken with "Fifteen Saxophones" by Dickie Landry, an avant garde, minimalist track from 1977, but the whole 21 track CD, as usual, was a standout. Early Oxford American CDs fetch quite a pretty penny on eBay, incidentally.)
|The Preservation Hall Jazz Band|
|Zydeco players, Louisiana 1938|
So far, the changes in The Oxford American seem to reside only in the CD – both minor (the year of origin of the song is not printed on the back of the CD as it used to be – and a little more obviously between The Oxford American’s pages (the liner notes on the CD’s track listing are briefer and more straightforward. They used to be both longer and often written in a literary style matching the tone of the song itself.) But the stories and features were likely commissioned in advance of Smirnoff’s firing, as probably were the line-up of the songs themselves. So it’s too early to predict whether those (so far) small changes are a harbinger of the magazine beginning a downward slide without Smirnoff at its helm. It's to be hoped, however, as publisher Warwick Sabin wrote in the Southern Journalism issue where he somewhat coyly announced Smirnoff’s departure but also wished him well, that the magazine has “become an institution that is not solely dependent upon one person’s energy and vision.” Since the magazine has been through hard times before, ceasing publication twice during its 20 years of existence, he’s probably right. With Roger D. Hodge, a respected former editor at Harper’s Magazine, now ensconced in Smirnoff’s place, The Oxford American should continue to remain a flagship and influential American magazine and not just in the South. Meanwhile, pick up The Southern Music issue. At its low price and deep content, it’s easily the best deal in town.
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