Aside from interminable political campaigning, Americans are doing some pretty good things on television this autumn. The World Series lifts us out of baseball’s summer boredom and synthesizes all the best of the game-the twanging tension, devilish strategy, clutch heroics and elegant grace of movement. And though professional football has been all but “time-outed” to death, it still has moments of highly watchable splendor.
Another good thing is Smithsonian World, the Institution’s public television series, which has won two Emmys. On the 24th of this month, at 8 P.M. Eastern time, it kicks off its new season, underwritten by Southwestern Bell Corporation.
The title of the first show is “The Living Smithsonian.” When I heard rumors that it had to do with what goes on around the Mall and beyond, I got savagely territorial. Fangs bared, neck hairs all bristle, I stalked off, stiff legged and snarling, to see what these television people were up to.
They were out on the Mall, all right. My Mall. The Folklife Festival had started, tents had sprouted like mushrooms and the air was filled with different sorts of music, so that you could ricochet from southern Russia to Massachusetts to Trinidad as the sounds lured you.
Smithsonian World was right in the middle of it all, its people setting up lights at the Festival Music Stage, rigging sound booms, lugging heavy cameras. 1 introduced myself testily and was received with that distracted courtesy with which you greet friends who show up at the worst possible moment. Someone shoved a schedule in my hand and I noted that nine of the Smithsonian World people had been up in time for a 7 A.M. breakfast, that they had arrived at the Festival at 8:30 A.M. with a van and a truck, and that they were scheduled to shoot all day long until 6 Pm.
Nine people. A truck and a van. Thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. In the face of all this, my territoriality began to seem like the yapping of a small dog at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Anger was obviously useless. I adopted sulkiness instead.
Even that was hard to maintain as I met several generous and affable TV people who told me more about the projected show. The basic idea was to depict the Smithsonian not as a repository of millions of items, but as a living, vital organization.
OK. I go along with that. Smithsonian World was seeking to do this by visiting a number of key Smithsonian people-“living treasures” doing their particular jobs at various parts of the Institution-and also some folk artists who add to our national culture. These people would interweave with the sounds and the fun of the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival, where all that diverse culture comes together on the Mall -the “front lawn” of the Castle.
Well, I guess that’s OK when you’ve got a whole hour in which to get across an impression of the Mall. I only have about 1,500 words, which people can read in maybe five minutes.
Some nice people from the Smithsonian World office helped me sort out what was going on that day. I was given a tape of the show’s audio. Sound without pictures was incomplete, yet it gave me a fairly good idea of how the program would evolve and what the TV crews had been doing up to the time I saw them. For they’d been filming bits of this kaleidoscope ever since snow flew last winter.
Gosh. I have to do most of my Mall columns in about four days. Less, when I’m running late.
I was told that Paul E. Garber would start things off by recalling the early days of flight, and how the Smithsonian got hold of planes like the Spirit of St. Louis and the Wright Flyer.
Garber. Of course. He’s historian emeritus at the National Air and Space Museum and he knows everything about flight. I’m sure I’ve done Paul Garber sometime in the past 13 years. I’ll look up my files and see.
Then the camera will come in on Gary Sturm, who manages the musical instrument collection at the Museum of American History. He’ll say that beautiful antique instruments should be heard as well as seen. Nice line.
Now, I know I’ve done something about the Smithsonian Chamber Players putting on concerts with those wonderful old instruments. I just can’t lay my hand on it right now.
We go to a recording session where the players use the five Strads that are at the Museum of American History, four on loan from Dr. and Mrs, Herbert R. Axelrod. We watch the famous cellist Anner Bylsma play the Smithsonian’s own Servais, one of the finest surviving cellos made by Stradivari.
I remember writing about the Servais somewhere, but I have a terrible feeling it wasn’t in one of these columns.
The show will take us to Louisiana to listen to Eddie Lejeune play Cajun music (SMITHSONIAN, February 1988). And we jump from there to Virginia to listen to John “Bowling Green” Cephas and “Harmonica Phil” Wiggins play Piedmont blues. From there, we go to Fort Peck, Montana, where we find the Badland Singers doing Dakota Sioux songs and dances.
Louisiana! Montana! I think it’s a pretty big deal when I get sent out Connecticut Avenue to our National Zoo.
Bernice Reagon of the Museum of American History gives a fascinating and moving interview about the Smitthsonian’s black American exhibits. I wrote something about that, too, but I made the mistake of not interviewing Reagon.
And we listen to a concert of the old civil rights songs, with Reagon talking about the way it was. She’s introduced as one of the original Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers.
The show will jump to Fort Pierce, Florida (I did a column about that, some time ago), where curator Robert Higgins studies meiofauna, the microscopic creatures who live in aquatic sediments. Higgins tells us that a handful of wet sand may hold as many as 10,000 of them.
Higgins wasn’t there when I was. The show talks about-and with Howard Finster, a 72-year-old preacher artist-storyteller-banjo-picker from a little town in Georgia. He tells how, in the last church where he “pastored,” he felt his congregation wasn’t paying attention. They were just showing up every Sunday because he was familiar to them and it seemed like the right thing to do. So he got the idea to paint his messages.
Whoo, boy! He’s new to me. Back at the Festival on the Mall, the cameras will pick up the same tribal and folk musicians that we had met back on their home turf. We’ll listen to them cut loose on the common ground they share with other folk artists, all in the shadow of the Smithsonian, which exists partly to bring these varied cultural roots together and explain them.
That’s kind of neat. I should have thought of that.
It explained why, on this particular day, I was listening to Eddie Lejeune bring out his daddy’s accordion and tell us that when he was 5 his daddy got killed by a car, and his grandmother used to play that accordion, and he grew interested and picked up the bouncy Cajun music. He and his group then ran through a set in regional Louisiana French, and people got up and danced in the tent under Smithsonian World’s bright lights, and the camera moved its big eye around, watching everything.
After that, Bowling Green Cephas and Harmonica Phil rolled their blue notes through the tent. And no sooner had they finished than the Badland singers and dancers came on with that relentless drumbeat and the jangle of ankle bells, and those falsetto notes rising and falling. Tom Vennum, Smithsonian ethnomusicologist, explains in the film that music is sacred to Indians; they have a song for everything: battle, death, grinding corn, returning home.
“At the very end, the Smithsonian people we’ve talked to appear on the Mall with the Festival as a backdrop,” Adrian Malone told me, when I met him later. He’s the executive producer of the series. Like the rest of that crowd, he seems really quite a pleasant sort of person. I suppose they may have just faked all that cordiality. You know buttering me up so they could get away with trespassing on my Mall. But it seemed genuine.
I guess I’ll catch that opening show on the 24th. After all, the World Series will be over, and the Monday-night quarterbacks in the newsrooms will have finished their critiques of yesterday’s Redskins game against the Green Bay Packers. And the program seems to have quite a lot about what goes on around the Mall and beyond that I didn’t . . . that I’d sort of like to look at.