Friday, March 11, 2011

200 Years of Luddism

I have been researching a new play for the last year or so -- and am starting to write it. And today, oddly enough, is a highlight occasion for me in that process.

Two hundred years ago today, on March 11, 1811, a riot broke out in the marketplace of the Englich city of Nottingham. Later that evening, a group of men marched into a Nottingham suburb and smashed up machines that made stockings (so-called "stocking frames).

Little did those men know that they were commencing a movement -- which came to be known as "Luddism" -- that would be known to us today.

The word "Luddite" gets thrown around a lot these days, and it has come down to us as a term for those who actively oppose the advance of technology in human affairs.

Indeed, the first impulse that led me to the topic was my observation that the term "Luddite" -- like any other term that has wound its way from a specific historical moment into a mainstream term that resonates centuries later -- likely has a much corrupted modern meaning, and that even a cursory excavation of the term would yield up a story that was much more interesting than our contemporary notion of Luddism as a blindly anti-technological movement.

My hunch has not only been proven right -- but it has yielded up a treasure trove of material that will resonate in an America that is exhausted by war, outsourcing its jobs, cheapening and destroying its manufactures and busting its unions though political means.

Luddism had a number of regional strains -- most famously, the "croppers" of Yorkshire whose violence against the so-called "gig mills" that destroyed their trade is legendary for its stealth and its brutality. But as I shape the play, I have decided to focus on its origins in Nottingham -- where the issues were more complex and where the town's Luddite movement was highly selective and staggeringly effective in selecting its targets and isolating itself from detection.

I have also developed a great amount of material for the play about how the Romantic poets of the day --Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and George Gordon, Lord Byron -- reacted to the movement.

What I'm hoping to do over the next three or four months is let Balkans via Bohemia readers follow along as I finish my research and write the play. I am also going to follow along over the next few months as various Luddite anniversaries, ahem, crop up. I have also created an open Facebook group that will provide shorter updates and tidbits.

It all started 200 years ago today. I hope you'll follow along as I excavate what Luddism was all about and try to translate it into a dramatic work that will speak to a larger audience.

(Image is a poster of a reward offered by officials in Nottingham to apprehend Luddites in that city.)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Malefactors of Great Wealth

J.P. Olsen is one of those renaissance guys. He's been a journalist and a documentary filmmaker who wrote a well-received book -- and made a film -- with drug policy specialist Nancy Campbell called The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America's First Prison for Drug Addicts. (You can hear an NPR interview with Olsen and Campbell about that project.)

But I got to know Olsen as a musician about a decade when a record he made with members of The Haynes Boys as Burn Barrel landed in my "to be reviewed" pile.

The release was called Reviled! and it's a brilliant record that always had a place on my CD stand and then my iPod. It's full of twisted and heart-wrenching love songs ("Creep of Love" "Little Cowboys), sharp observations of the collision of journalism and the real world ("Andy Uzzle, "Mrs Tubbs") and a real nose for the what the socialists call class and the artistes call the "low life. ("Today is Champagne"). A number of singer-songwriters have traveled various parts of this territory, of course, but what makes Olsen so special are the surprises and twists in his craft -- crafting a chorus for a portrait of crime-scene photographer out of the words "Tagamet" and "no remorse," for instance. Or his description in ("Mrs Tubbs") of the mother of a larcenous daughter, confronted by the buzz of neighbors and reporters as "shaking like a rhesus monkey."

Olsen's newest record, Today Is the Best Day of My Life -- an EP recorded under the moniker "The Malefactors of Great Wealth -- doesn't exactly pick up where Reviled! leaves off. The new record not only has a cleaner sound (produced by Golden Palominos founder Anton Fier), but overall it's a more inward-looking record. (The great exception is the rollicking "Prisontown," where "some of the people... are dangerous" and "some of the people... are famous," would not have sounded at all out of place on Reviled!)

Though the sound on Today Is the Best Day of My Life may be cleaner than the raucous Reviled! (more the L.A. of the Association and Forever Changes Love than alt-country), the close observations of people and milieus on the latter record give way to something fiercely interior on the new collection. Songs such as "Clean," "True Ways" and "Today" have the mercurial feel of soliloquies -- associative and yet not arbitrary.

"I shaved all my hair off/Kissed my TV," sing Olsen on "Clean," sketching out a sodden landscape that traffics equally in whimsy and misery. The songs on Olsen's new record take you to a place that's worth the journey. Highly recommended record.

Get Today Is the Best Day of My Life and Reviled! at Other Music's digital shop.
Find out more about The Narcotic Farm.