Friday, January 4, 2013

A Defiantly Good Read: The Oxford American

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.

Since then I’ve regularly purchased that Southern Music Issue, and sought out back copies at the magazine's website ( 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
Ultimately what makes The Oxford American such a valuable, enjoyable read (and listen) is that it so expertly dispels commonly held perceptions of the South. We shouldn’t need to be reminded of its longstanding great literary traditions with a base of important writers coming from the region who include William Faulkner, H.L. Mencken, Pat Conroy, Tom Wolfe, Richard Ford and the late John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces), among many others. (Mark Twain could be counted among them, too, since when he was born Missouri was actually counted as a Southern state.) And of course jazz emanates from New Orleans and much of R & B, too. (Delta and Mississippi Blues are a veritable genre onto themselves.) Don’t get me started on Rock’s Southern antecedents. (Two words: Elvis Presley!) But since the South suffers from culturally simplistic portrayals that make it look like it’s still stuck in the 19th century, especially in Hollywood movies and TV shows, from The Client to True Blood, The Oxford American becomes a necessary corollary for that depiction.

Fortunately, it delivers quality in spades, too and not just in the Southern Music issue. Its New South Journalism issue, which came out in the fall, had a wonderful piece by Chris Rose,  on his 25 years reporting at New Orleans’s Time-Picayune newspaper. (Rose also contributed a smart piece on Louisiana as the cradle of American music to the Southern Music issue.) If you ever doubted that the South was different than the rest of the U.S., consider what happened when it was announced that, beginning this past fall, the venerable daily, which had distinguished itself during its coverage of the shattering Hurricane Katrina, would mostly be shifting to the internet, reduced to publishing only three print editions a week. The outcry that its non-Southern owners would do that to a newspaper considered a 'friend' by its loyal readers was unprecedented with, incredibly, subscribers and advertisers even offering to pay double what they were already paying to keep the newspaper alive as a daily. Imagine that happening anywhere else – as Rose astutely points out, not even the most fanatic New York Times readers would ever refer to their newspaper as a ‘friend'. Similar press announcements in the Midwest and West have been greeted with resignation. And though the good folk of Louisiana didn’t manage to stall that decision, bless them, at least they tried with all their hearts and abilities to do so. (I’m one of those ‘ancients’, as Chris Rose calls them and himself, who consider that new direction for newspapers – and magazines like Newsweek, which is now online only – as calamitous and deeply sad, a diminution of the quality of life in fact.) There were other gripping pieces in that issue, including one of those truth is stranger than fiction narratives, concerning writer Walker Percy’s late uncle who was a white supremacist – and gay! Every page of the magazine yields such treasures.

Zydeco players, Louisiana 1938
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one change in the magazine: the firing in July 2012 of the Oxford American’s founder (California-born) Marc Smirnoff, allegedly on grounds of sexually harassing interns at the magazine. Smirnoff and girlfriend Carol Ann Fitzgerald, who was also fired, defended themselves vociferously online and Smirnoff rebutted, in particular, the New York Times coverage of the affair. It was a messy, disquieting burst of unwelcome publicity for a publication which is generally only used to praise and kudos. (The New York Times opined that The Oxford American "may be the liveliest literary mgazine in America.")

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.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s Life Institute and will be teaching a course there on What Makes a Movie Great?, beginning on Feb. 8.

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