New Music Box Articles
In February, 2016, I wrote a series of articles highlighting portraits of people and places of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds region in Appalachian Ohio. Each article focuses on sounds and how paying attention to them can give insight into issues such as labor, protest, recovery, and social life. I also address how recording and carefully listening to these sounds can suggest ways of bridging between place and creative sound works.
PLACE, SOUND, HISTORY, NOW: LISTENING TO THE “LITTLE CITIES OF BLACK DIAMONDS”
In a brief essay from 1975, author, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry wrote that he used to think there was a division between culture and place. He thought art could be detached and removed from environmental damage, that art was somehow perfect in an imperfect world. After inadvertently damaging his own property, he recognized that the complex relationships between power, culture, and place are in fact deeply entwined. Berry acknowledged, “It used to be that I could think of art as a refuge from such troubles. …Art was what was truly permanent, therefore what truly mattered. …I am no longer able to think that way. That is because I now live in my subject. My subject is my place in the world, and I live in my place...”
LISTENING TO LABOR IN THE “LITTLE CITIES OF BLACK DIAMONDS”
“You want to get a badass sound, man? Check this out,” says a young assistant working at a gas and oil well drill site. I am standing next to a small opening in the ground, perhaps a foot across. It is a cold December day, and I join an independent driller and his crew to record them as they work on the well. Two assistants fill up buckets with limestone, and the rocks are slowly thrown down the hole. As the rocks descend hundreds of feet, they bounce randomly off the walls of the well. A few seconds later they begin to hit the bottom, and the sounds that travel back to the surface are sharp, percussive, and reverberate through the long tube of earth. “Sounds like a gun ricochet,” says one of the men. “Yeah, or it’s like water,” the other remarks. To me, it sounds like fireworks coming from the wrong direction, and I note that the sounds of the rocks measure the distance traveled into the ground. They send sound waves down and back up, vibrations that we feel racing back out of the hole. Fortunately, nothing else comes up with the sound. “You better stand away from that hole a little bit,” says the driller, “the sparks going down in there may light some of the gas. It might do that, it might not. I heard it yesterday go ‘Whoom!’ before gas fire shot out…”
LISTENING TO SOCIAL LIFE IN THE “LITTLE CITIES OF BLACK DIAMONDS”
I walk among a crowd of people at the Moonshine Festival in New Straitsville, Ohio. It is Memorial Day weekend, signaling the beginning of summer. The festival celebrates the town’s notoriety as a place where much illegal moonshine was (and perhaps still is) made and sold. It is an industry that arose here in part as a response to the underground fires that ended coal mining in the late 19th century. I walk up and down Main Street recording the sounds and voices that pass by. There is a Johnny Cash recording playing in the background, and I listen to people selling and buying t-shirts and funnel cakes and onion petals.
I hear: electricity buzzing, chains clinking, clapping, laughter, motors, coughing, yelling, a baby crying, a car radio, wood hitting concrete, hissing air, dog growls, sighs, birds, trucks revving, banging, pounding, a dog sniffing, and sneezing...
LISTENING TO PROTEST AND RESISTANCE IN THE “LITTLE CITIES OF BLACK DIAMONDS”
I am at the mouth of Robinson’s Cave, a small recess in a hill above New Straitsville, Ohio. It is late winter, and the area is overwhelmed with the sounds of melting ice and snow crunching underfoot. The wind stirs fallen leaves and moves the canopy overhead. In the town below, an old school bell is quietly heard, and cars drive through the salty slush and snow. These sounds are a reflection of the cave’s contemporary soundscape, but the past echoes here, too. In the late 19th century, coal miners met here secretly to resist unfair wages and to unionize. Local historians note that the secluded cave had “great acoustics,” and miners could meet quietly and still hear each other. Whispers reverberated and remained there. These meetings were key to the formation of the United Mine Workers of America in 1890...