First Friday: Stepin Fetchet / Trend-watching / Can poetry matter? / Barn poetry / Stress of racism / Who music serves / Snowboarding terms / Thank You, M’am / Minor league baseball stadiums

Programs & Series | Midday | Topics | Arts & Culture | Special Collections | Minnesota Books and Authors | Types | Interviews | Social Issue | Grants | Legacy Project Remote Work (2020-2021) | Minnesota Musicians | Black life in Minnesota | Poems, Poets, and Poetry | Reading |
Listen: Stepin Fetchet / Trend-watching / Can poetry matter? / Barn poetry / Stress of racism / Who music serves / snowboarding terms / Thank You, M’am / Minor league baseball stadiums

First Friday, with host Beth Friend, highlights various local arts and culture. Today’s show includes:

· Playwright Michael Henry Brown discusses “King of Coons,” a play about Stepin Fetchet (born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry), playing at the Penumbra.

· Trend-watcher Vicky Abraham discusses current trends, including using witchcraft to fight sexual harassment, fly-fishing, knuckle reading and beef eating.

· Poet Dana Gioia discusses the popular history of poetry in America, and his book “Can Poetry Matter?”

· Poetry on the farm via prose placed on barns of rural Minnesota.

· African American artist Seitu Jones discusses essay on stress of racism

· Composer Randy Davidson is interviewed on the idea of who music serves

· Anne Susanoff, executive editor at American-Heritage Dictionary, talks about word usage, including new language terms within snowboarding culture.

· Greg Alan Williams reads piece from Langston Hughes’s “Thank You, Ma’m.”

· Julian Epsom shares stories of touring minor league baseball stadiums.


text | pdf |

[MUSIC PLAYING] BETH FRIEND: Hi, I'm Beth Friend. Welcome to First Friday, an hour of pop and art and goings-on around town. We're about the stuff of books, plays, and TV mini-series as we turn the culture inside out to get a better look. Today, poetry on the farm, news of witchcraft and knuckle reading, artist Seitu Jones on the stress of racism, and composer Randy Davidson wondering who music serves.

First up, Stepin Fetchit. Just say his name and the image appears of a dimwitted, stammering, shuffling Black man. He's a stereotype many would just as soon forget. But one person who hasn't forgotten the Black film star of the '20s and '30s is playwright Michael Henry Brown. In his play King of Coons, now at Penumbra Theater in St. Paul, Brown reevaluates Fetchit's contributions and looks at the man behind the fiction.

In King of Coons, Fetchit is known as Cotton Pickett. We follow his life on and off screen and watch as he stays completely in character during an interview with a Hollywood reporter.

STEPIN FETCHIT: College? We've got much to learn from y'all. I was just a humble servant who wants to make you laugh. The white races, great and noble. The Negro should meditate on why this is.

SPEAKER 1: That's wonderful to hear. Say, what's your real name?

STEPIN FETCHIT: Cotton, the name my papa gave me.

SPEAKER 1: Are you serious?

STEPIN FETCHIT: Sure enough.

BETH FRIEND: But in the course of the play, we also meet the man behind the Stepin Fetchit Cotton Pickett mask. The womanizer, the gambler, who'd cruise up and down Central Avenue in Los Angeles in a convertible. A lion in the back seat, a high yellow woman next to him, pistols wrapped around his waist. This was the man who had 16 Chinese servants and knew all too well the Hollywood game he was playing. A star with a big ego who finds that his studio contract has been terminated.

ABDUL SALAAM EL RAZZAC: You think I'm scared? Y'all be calling me. Ain't nobody can replace the king, the ace coon! Wait till you find out that Riley can't have a hit without me. And that's when I'm going to tell you all to kiss my Black ass. Because, see, I saved wolf pitches.

BETH FRIEND: Actor Abdul Salaam El Razzac plays the Fetchit Pickett character. El Razzac saw Stepin Fetchit films as a child, heard about Fetchit from relatives in show business, and even met him for a brief moment. But when it came time to tackle the role, it was extremely difficult for El Razzac to get into character.

ABDUL SALAAM EL RAZZAC: This was stuff that was either beaten out of me, psychoanalyzed out of me, or went through some kind of catharsis. Never have to deal with anything this character went through. When I was growing up, not only my father, but his friends and other old men in the neighborhood would stop you as a young kid and go upside your head and say, don't you roll your eyes. Don't you, coon? Don't you scratch your head. Don't you do this. Don't you do that.

BETH FRIEND: Stepin Fetchit's legacy is a controversial and painful one for actors like El Razzac, whose livelihood depends on Hollywood's latest definition of Black and for all African-Americans. Was Fetchit and Uncle Tom perpetuating the quintessential Black male stereotype or a very talented comedian who did what he had to in order to work? A film pioneer paving the way for today's top Black performers.

The answer, according to one character in King of Coons, is clear. The Reverend is a member of the Society of Negroes, the play's fictional stand-in for the NAACP. Reverend tells Cotton Pickett exactly what he thinks of his routine.

SPEAKER 2: You have taken the mask we wear to survive. You made it all a lie. You are a thief. You stole our pain for your profit. You are going to pay back one way or another. You raped your own kind.

BETH FRIEND: Lou Bellamy, director of King of Coons, judges Fetchit less harshly. He says that in early John Ford pictures, there was a feeling that Fetchit was winking at the audience, saying, watch me get one over on this guy.

LOU BELLAMY: As that character began to metamorphose and without the kind of control and input that I'm sure Stepin would have liked to have had, those elements of survival and getting over and getting what it is you really want were lessened, and the coon and the funniness and the departure from Anglo-Saxon norms and all that things emphasized. And those became offensive to Black people. They understood the strategy early on.

BETH FRIEND: King of Coons suggests that Stepin Fetchit suffered mightily from the manipulations of Hollywood directors and from the criticism he received from Black organizations. And he was deeply disappointed when his plans for Harlem Wood, a Black entertainment facility, fell through. In the play, the Cotton Pickett character articulate his pain through the brutal treatment of his wife, through fights with colleagues, and by increasingly blurring the difference between real life and the movies.

During the filming of a scene from Dixie Justice, the character Cotton Pickett gets the judge to clear him of charges of making moonshine by acting slow and stupid. Right after that filming, Pickett is actually at Los Angeles County court facing charges of drunk driving. And he uses the same coon character to get the judge's favor.

STEPIN FETCHIT: Your honor, I was misunderstood, you see. Ask the laziest man in show business.

SPEAKER 3: I know, I know. I've seen all of your pictures.

STEPIN FETCHIT: Oh. Then you must understand that it takes practice. Being colored, I was naturally lazy and slow. But I've got to constantly perfect it. When the good officers picked me up, I was leaving my car. I was practicing my walk, exaggerating my movements because I had to be on the set the next morning.

SPEAKER 3: You mean you were rehearsing at 2:00 in the morning?

BETH FRIEND: Stepin Fetchit actually did use his screen persona to charm an LA County judge. Playwright Michael Henry Brown took this incident straight from the historical record and used it to create one of the play's more critical moments.

MICHAEL HENRY BROWN: I think that's a key scene because at that point, we know he's really become lost in that. It's no longer about-- he has no more self-dignity, if you will, in a way. At this point, he's lost himself at least. As one character says, possibly lost his soul.

BETH FRIEND: Brown feels for the man who was Stepin Fetchit and has great respect for his comedic talents. He comes down hard on contemporary Black entertainers who have publicly and sharply criticized the actor. In King of Coons, the swell-headed entertainer Gil Swope is a clear stand-in for Bill Cosby, who in 1968 narrated a CBS Black History documentary that vilified Fetchit. At the end of King of Coons, Swope finally gives Cotton Pickett his due. Pickett is in his late 80s, wheelchair bound, and in a stroke-like condition when he witnesses the tribute.

GIL SWOPE: Here is a man who made motion picture history by taking studio crumbs and turning them into gem-like vignettes. He was a man who made it possible because there had to be a first. I give to you the Society of Negroes Lifetime Achievement Award winner for this year, Cotton Pickett.



BETH FRIEND: Michael Henry Brown first wrote King of Coons seven years ago. Penumbra is the first theater to produce it. Why were there no takers earlier on? We caught up with Brown once again at his home in New York City and found out why.

MICHAEL HENRY BROWN: You know, I write about subjects that other people, particularly Black people, don't particularly want to hear about. So when there were Black theaters in New York and I'm mainly New Yorker, none of them wanted to touch any of my work, particularly this work, with a 10-foot pole.


MICHAEL HENRY BROWN: Well, I was told, you are talented. But one friend of mine who was with the theater said, who wants to hear a play based on Stepin Fetchit? And others would just--

BETH FRIEND: Because it's depressing? Because it's degrading?

MICHAEL HENRY BROWN: Degrading. Nobody wants to go back to that time. And it's become a cliche now to some people. I think it's very true. I'm probably paraphrasing it, about those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. And I would argue that there were a few films that were Stepin Fetchit-like in the '70s and '80s. But nobody wanted to deal with that.

And the mainstream white theaters acknowledged my talent, always gave me readings, but ultimately were worried about what their liberal and Black friends would say about the work. So I think in the theater in general, if you're not writing, as George Wolfe so eloquently put it, mama-on-the-couch plays, you're not going to be accepted. And that's if you're Black. And I think it goes with white critics, Black critics.

I know critics in particular that if you're not writing a mom-in-a-couch play or an angry Black man play or a Black woman play, they totally dismiss you because, of course, you can't have any intellectual capacity. You have to write mom-on-the-couch plays because you're suffering and you're angry and you cannot be intellectual. And so that's the general feeling. I mean, I think it's loosening up now more. But particularly in the mid '80s and late '80s, that was true.

I think theater is, for the most part, but particularly any kind of ethnic theater could be Black, Jewish, or whatever. It's very politicized and it's all about that and being on a soapbox instead of about character, instead of about people, instead of about art.

BETH FRIEND: It's interesting. It's interesting that people would object even once reading the play or seeing it receive a staged reading because one of the more interesting facets of the play is a fact that the real person behind the mask is revealed and the toll that playing that stereotypical coon character took on Fetchit is made very clear. And so there's really an attempt to present a full, complete human being.

MICHAEL HENRY BROWN: Absolutely. But I think that there's an emotional thing going on there. I mean, again, it's not that I don't understand why particularly Black people are upset with that image or even white people are upset with that image. They have to deal with a past thing also. But my tact is always why run away from it. If you do a play about a Black male that's abusive toward women, everybody's afraid of it.

Oh, you're negative about Black people. Well, maybe it's not so much about Black people. Maybe it's about male-female relationships and this couple happens to be Black. If you do something like I did, a play about a violent Black woman, I got a lot of flak, as if that didn't exist.

BETH FRIEND: You did a play about what?

MICHAEL HENRY BROWN: A woman. A Black woman who was violent and I got a lot of flak about that, as if that didn't exist. Everything in the theater has become-- you have to be politically correct. I'm not even singling out so-called Black theater, theater in general. A lot of my plays were not done and a lot of my colleagues who write in a similar vein, like Mary McClinton who's out of Minnesota, we were not done because we're not politically correct.

And I really applaud Lou Bellamy of Penumbra because he really-- last year, he took a chance on a play of mine. And this year, he's taken another chance.

BETH FRIEND: King of Coons by Michael Henry Brown runs through February 21st at Penumbra Theater in St. Paul. Brown also wrote the screenplay for the HBO miniseries The Weekend, which is about St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood. That series will be given a sneak preview at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on Saturday, February 27th. And Michael Henry Brown will be introducing it, so you can meet him there.


13 minutes after the hour. And you're listening to First Friday on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm your host, Beth Friend. Time for trends, what to look out for and either embrace or hide from. For a list of the latest, we turn to Vickie Abrahamson of the Iconoculture newsletter.

VICKIE ABRAHAMSON: I think one thing that's really hot these days is there's a manic for musicals. We've spotted them on Broadway last year with a Crazy for You and a revived Guys and Dolls. This year, it's anything by Rodgers and Hammerstein, as well as '70s retreads, Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar. Here at home next season, you can get your gun with Annie or rope a steer with Will Rogers. And that really is the trend of a returning to what's comfortable in music.

BETH FRIEND: OK, so there's one trend that's cozy, cozy. Anything that takes us in a more dangerous direction?

VICKIE ABRAHAMSON: Ooh, it's hexes. Witchcraft for the office.

BETH FRIEND: It's more up my alley.

VICKIE ABRAHAMSON: Yeah. It's probably something that's happening at MPR on an ongoing basis. New way to handle sexual harassers involves a little hot foot powder sprinkled on the carpet, maybe underneath your chair or desk at the office. Keep an eye out for spells, these occult supply stores. I'd look for witchcraft in my office. It's happening. And it's all a part of this getting in touch with the goddess within you, taking control and finding that power within yourself.

BETH FRIEND: Interesting. The intersection between the spiritual movement for inner control and inner power and what has usually been talked about in a much more political arena, and that is sexual harassment in the workplace.

VICKIE ABRAHAMSON: Exactly. And it's not a joke. It sounds like a joke. It sounds way out, but look for it.

BETH FRIEND: Hmm. OK. What about trends in life away from the office, places we'd rather be?

VICKIE ABRAHAMSON: I'd like to be in the middle of a stream, fly fishing. I think that's the craze these days. A river runs through. It has grabbed an estimated 2 million people into this whole craze for tying flies. And we're looking at Iconoculture for the neoprene wetsuit bib to be the accessory for spring and summer. Handmade bibs in your custom size.

BETH FRIEND: Obviously, the trend has not struck home with me.

VICKIE ABRAHAMSON: OK. You don't have waders, Beth?


VICKIE ABRAHAMSON: Well, waders are bibs. And the old waders that were heavy plastic or molded rubber are out. And these light-- you can almost swim upstream in these and not get wet.

BETH FRIEND: So do you really relate this totally to the movie, coming from the movie, or was it happening slowly anyway? I mean, is this a part of the same trend of a lot of people buying places in Montana and that becoming the new vacation land and summer home land for many people?

VICKIE ABRAHAMSON: I think Montana/Wyoming are the fantasies in people's mind. The communing with nature, a river runs through. It has just been putting this in front of many, many more people.

BETH FRIEND: You know, it is beautiful because it's connected to communing with nature and bringing people out of doors. But because of the whole equipment, wear the clothing, L.L.Bean nature of it, it's very materialistic.


BETH FRIEND: So take us away from this materialism here for a minute.

VICKIE ABRAHAMSON: Maybe we should look at knuckle reading. Knuckle reading is a whole other trying to get in touch with yourself movement. If you've dabbled in palmistry or maybe thrown your tarot cards to the wind, you'll be turning your hands over to a new kind of clairvoyant. They read the shape, the line, the knobbiness. And you do have knobby knuckles, Beth.

BETH FRIEND: It's funny because when you said knuckle reading, I thought, what is there to really look at all that closely? There's not that much surface area. There's really not that much that is uniquely defining about knuckles.

VICKIE ABRAHAMSON: You're reading actually how other people are going to affect your life. You can read the future. You can read the now in them and the past. And the whole theory is that the brain imprints these lines and crevices and colors on the back of your hand.

BETH FRIEND: OK. Now we need a trend for the non-spiritualists in the audience. We've talked about witchcraft. We talked about knuckle reading. We have to get down to some brass tacks here.

VICKIE ABRAHAMSON: Oh. Well, I mean, if we're talking about real people, real men, real women, we're talking about meat eaters. Beef is back. It's totally back. Customers are using meat as a treat, as an indulgence. Where we used to go out for a great treat of pasta, now we're going out for a ribeye. It's meat. It is really a clintonesque thing to do.

BETH FRIEND: Trend watcher Vickie Abrahamson, part of the team that puts out the newsletter Iconoculture.


Surely, one of the more memorable moments of last month's presidential inauguration was when Maya Angelou read her poem, On the Pulse of Morning. It was as if we were suddenly reawakened to the power of the artfully spoken word. A lot of people have been crusading on poetry's behalf recently. Only a few weeks ago, poet Dana Gioia visited the Twin Cities. And he was urging us to take back poetry from the suffocating stranglehold of academia. Let's go back to the good old days, says Gioia, when we all read poetry.

DANA GIOIA: Really, until about 1920, poetry was part of the mainstream of American life. The best selling author in any genre in the 19th century in America was Longfellow, as a poet. I mean, Longfellow was read by virtually every literate American. The most popular playwright in 19th century America was Shakespeare. And Shakespeare was performed by people at every level of society, even miners in small mining towns. Once they built the saloon, would put on amateur performances of Shakespeare.

And there was really a love affair between the American people and literature, especially poetry. Because it was really, in a sense, part of the American vision, which was to give the common man, in a sense, not access but the ability to create his own life. I can go back and I can give you a hundred anecdotes about how popular American poetry was.

BETH FRIEND: Give me one.

DANA GIOIA: I'll give you one. Edna St. Vincent Millay, after the publication of Fatal Interview in 1931, was so popular, she was given a network radio show to read poetry on.

BETH FRIEND: Gioia has more to say on the subject in his new book of essays, Can Poetry Matter? published by the Twin Cities' own Graywolf Press. Kudos to both author and publisher because Can Poetry Matter? has been nominated as one of 1992's most distinguished books by the National Book Critics Circle. And we'll find out in about two weeks if it wins a final award.

Meanwhile, let's celebrate with a story of how another East Coast artist tried to bring poetry to the people, this time to Goodhue County, Minnesota. Take a drive down a back road in Goodhue and you just might come across these lines. Only wind speaks in the empty treetops. The mute farmer draws a fish in the March snow. This poem is painted on the side of a faded red barn just south of Red Wing.

A few miles down the road, another barn rises out of the frozen fields, displaying a different cryptic verse. In all, there are four barn poems, each representing one of the seasons. KZSE's Maja Beckstrom explains the mystery.

MAJA BECKSTROM: Oscar Thompson's farm place sits here on the side of Goodhue County Road 6, about a half mile north of the implement dealer. Only a few cars come through this stretch of road. And sometimes, the drivers slow down to read the foot tall white letters that march across his faded red barn. On this windy day, Thompson trudges across the frozen cornfield to stand under the poem. It's been there 10 years, and Thompson still puzzles over what it means.

OSCAR THOMPSON: Yeah. It says, only wind speaks in the empty tree tops. The mute farmer draws a fish in the March snow. I guess the fish is supposed to be like a religious symbol. That's what the guy explained to me.

MAJA BECKSTROM: This fish poem was the inspiration of New York poet Mark Mendel. 10 years ago, Mendel stopped at the farmstead with an agricultural extension agent and asked to paint the poem on the barn. He'd already completed a project where he'd stenciled poems onto long nylon banners and hired a plane to fly them above Minneapolis. Now, he wanted to create what he called a lyrical calendar on four barns in Goodhue County.

Farmer Oscar Thompson thought it was a bit odd, but he said yes anyway. And a few months later, Mendel showed up with scaffolding and a crew of eager students from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Their brushwork put Thompson's farm on the map of Red Wing tourist attractions.

OSCAR THOMPSON: When it's first put up, there's a lot of people here. They come and stop here. And there's people all figure out the field here with tripods and cameras. And they even had bus tours, I think, once. People from the cities come down. They'd get out and take pictures and discuss the thing.

MAJA BECKSTROM: Mendel placed the four poems so people could drive in a loop to view them. And just down the road is the fall poem painted on a bright red barn that used to house Leonard and Bernetta Dickey's dairy cows. The poem reads, breathing in leaves ashes. The wings course. And the tractors turn over shadows, drawing the harvest inside us. Bernetta Dickey has mulled over these lines, and she thinks she has them figured out.

BERNETTA DICKEY: Breathing in leaves ashes means burning leaves in the fall. Then we go on to the wings course, which are the birds flying south for the winter. And the tractor turning over shadows, which is plowing the ground, getting ready for the spring crops. Then we go into drawing the harvest inside of us, which relates to bringing the different crops inside to feed the livestock for the winter. I'll get better as we go along.

MAJA BECKSTROM: Bernetta Dickey likes the poem. She says it reminds her of the old Burma-Shave advertisements she saw as a child painted on barns along Highway 61 out of Red Wing. Her husband, Leonard Dickey, is less enthusiastic. He says it's modern poetry, and modern poetry is like modern math. Neither makes any sense. In fact, a few years ago, when the barn needed a fresh coat of red paint, he wanted to paint over the verses. But his wife put her foot down and he resigned himself to saving the poem.

LEONARD DICKEY: We thought about putting masking tape over it, but that just didn't work at all. And then somebody told us to get a little 1-inch brush and paint around the letters. And that's what we did then. It took a long, long time to get that side done.

MAJA BECKSTROM: Mendel's winter poem didn't have a staunch defender like Bernetta Dickey. The barn owner has built a shed against the building, which now obscures half the text. But down the road, on a gray barn, these bold white words conjure images of summer. Green lit limbs, fan glance, shirtless contours in the downpour. Ancestors folded into valleys, honey in the burning hives.

BETH FRIEND: A final, hopefully inspirational postscript. The New York-based literary organization, Poets & Writers, is now expanding to the Midwest. They're the folks that underwrite grassroots appearances by authors. Their presence in Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Iowa means that literary outposts like libraries, prisons, and senior centers can get the money to bring in the poets and we can hear them.

If you want to apply for grants from Poets & Writers, then just send them a letter at 72 Spring Street, New York, New York 112. And send your letter to the attention of the Programs Department. The organization's expansion, by the way, is funded through a three-year, $1 million grant from the Lila Wallace Readers' Digest Fund.

DANA GIOIA: Money, the long green cash stash, rhino, jack, or just plain dough. Chalk it up. Fork it over. Shell it out. Watch it burn holes through pockets. To be made of it, to have it to burn. Greenbacks, double eagles, mega bucks, and Ginnie Mae's. It greases the palm, feathers the nest, holds heads above water, makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money, gathering, interest, compounding daily. Always in circulation. Money. You don't know where it's been, but you put it where your mouth is. And it talks.

BETH FRIEND: Poet Dana Gioia.


SEITU JONES: I was asked to write a small piece for a local art publication on the most stressful thing in my life as an artist. I knew right away what I was going to write about.

BETH FRIEND: Twin Cities artist, Seitu Jones.

SEITU JONES: This past year was very good for me professionally. I was awarded a fellowship that has given me the time and space to stretch out and explore. I received a few commissions to keep me going. And I was given three opportunities to design for the stage. I'm happily married. And this year, I became a proud grandfather. By now, you may know that I'm setting you up for the tone of this essay because it ain't about living large and sucking on the American dream.

While millions of African-Americans have grown personally and professionally over the last 30 years, millions of us are slipping deeper into despair. In the words of the late Thurgood Marshall, we have got to stop talking about how far we've come. Racism is still one of the most stressful elements in North American life. I know that the reality of being an artist in America means a lot of us are competing for the same few resources. But for many artists of color, that stress is aggravated by daily indignities.

Hey, it's wonderful being Black. But I have the potential to catch the same hell that Rodney King caught. Being an artist doesn't magically exempt me. A while back, I was pulled off my bike by the police in South Minneapolis in front of a mural that I had painted a year earlier. When I asked why I was being stopped, I was told that there had been a robbery and that I met the description, Black and bald.

It was impossible for that group of white police with guns drawn to think of me as the artist who created the mural we were standing in front of. I was, first of all, a suspect, just as I am to the white folks who move away from me on elevators, who cross the street when I'm approaching, who still yell out "nigger" from speeding cars. I grow weary of crude and simple racist acts.

But as my father used to say, you can't let it wear you down. Meaning that for 19 generations, Black folks have lived, survived, and sometimes prospered in North America. And that for me, the struggle against racism is ongoing. The question I pose to the arts community is why so few white folks and institutions have taken up an aggressive struggle to eliminate racism or even address the issue. Most of the discussion in the arts community has centered on placing colored faces in the audience.

Sometimes, I get discouraged that many artists and arts professionals, like some alcoholics, are locked in a permanent state of denial. No, not me. I'm not racist. The arts community likes to think of itself as progressive, open, and accepting, when in fact, it's just like every other segment of society. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, where close to 20% of the population are people of color, fewer than 20 people of color are employed by the four big art museums in the Twin Cities.

Statistically, it's easier for a Black man to become a Minnesota Viking than a curator in a major museum in these towns. While I'm not naive enough to believe that jobs alone will bring racial equality, it would be a good start. OK, here's my call to action. As an African-American artist, I would like to see more people of color in positions of authority in Twin Cities arts organizations and to hear serious discussions of race that do not focus solely on the problems of Black folks and other people of color, but deal with the fundamental flaws of American society.

Do the right thing ain't just the name of a movie, but came from a tradition of setting high moral principles that could guide us away from discrimination. If there are more of us in the elevators, in the halls, behind desks making decisions, maybe we can eliminate the stress of racism and all other forms of discrimination.

I want to put the arts community on alert. You have the creative potential to act as a model for the rest of society. What's needed is not just talk, but more action in the spirit and commitment of Nat Turner and John Brown.

BETH FRIEND: Artist Seitu Jones.

[DR. JOHN, "LET'S MAKE A BETTER WORLD"] The world we know was built on skills

But that alone don't count

Without the sweat and toil of mine

Well, it wouldn't be worth a dime

You gotta live and give, share and care

Really put some love in the air

When your neighbor's down and in trouble, you gotta pick him up

Nobody can live in despair

Everybody, let's sing, sing, sing

Everybody, let's sing, let freedom ring

Let's all pitch in to do our thing, make a better world to live in

Everybody, let's sing, sing, sing

BETH FRIEND: 32 minutes after the hour. And you're listening to First Friday on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm your host, Beth Friend. And it is with great pleasure that I welcome my old pal, artsman on the street, composer Randy Davidson.


BETH FRIEND: So what's on the brain of just a classical composer about town here on February 5th, 1993?

RANDY DAVIDSON: It's a foggy, cloudy day.


RANDY DAVIDSON: I have been so involved, so focused on one thing since the Monday before Thanksgiving that I can barely see beyond the rim of my glasses.

BETH FRIEND: And that thing is?

RANDY DAVIDSON: That thing is a set of commercials for a tennis shoe company called Nike. And they're an American company, which I didn't know before I started working on these ads.

BETH FRIEND: You've been co-opted, Mr. Composer.

RANDY DAVIDSON: Exactly. And as a completely co-opted contemporary composer, I have now lost all my credentials to be taken seriously among my peers. It is a very interesting, curious thing that has happened in my experience.

BETH FRIEND: Do people think less of you?

RANDY DAVIDSON: Or more, depending on who they are.

BETH FRIEND: So Nike comes to you. They have the script. They have the storyboard. You supply the music?

RANDY DAVIDSON: No. It was much more loose than that. You're very articulate about the advertising game.

BETH FRIEND: About the process.

RANDY DAVIDSON: Yeah. They came in with a libretto for an opera. And I was supposed to set this libretto to music. And the libretto normally, in libretti-- as a classic--

BETH FRIEND: I wouldn't know.

RANDY DAVIDSON: As a classically trained composer, I'm telling you. A libretti is very short, tends to be short. And I had the equivalent of about a 10-minute piece of music that I would have to use this libretto. There were lots and lots and lots and lots of words. So we basically threw it in an acid bath and got it down to-- rather than three pages or 2 and 1/2 pages long, it came to a half page.

BETH FRIEND: And the story?

RANDY DAVIDSON: The story? There were four stories. But the primary story is this main character who just got done playing at the Target Center. His name is Charles Barkley, and he stomped us. I hate to tell any Timberwolves fans, but he just stomped us at the Target Center.

BETH FRIEND: And in the commercial?

RANDY DAVIDSON: He stomps the referee.

BETH FRIEND: And the ref?

RANDY DAVIDSON: The ref dies. The idea is he is called the Barkley of Seville, which is a play on the word. Instead of the Barber of Seville, he's the Barkley of Seville. And it's a Rossini opera.

BETH FRIEND: So is he in period costume?

RANDY DAVIDSON: No, he's wearing Nike duds.

BETH FRIEND: And the ref?

RANDY DAVIDSON: Nike shirt, Nike pants, Nike socks, and Nike shoes. And the ref and the reporters and everybody else, they're all dressed up in 1800s outfits.

BETH FRIEND: The powdered wigs, the whole thing.

RANDY DAVIDSON: The whole thing. In sort of a retro, it's an interesting combination of Blade Runner and 18th century. Blade Runner is a very futuristic film.

BETH FRIEND: They're on the court.

RANDY DAVIDSON: They're on the court.

BETH FRIEND: The refs are in period costume. And Barkley is himself.

RANDY DAVIDSON: He is singing. He's singing opera. He's singing Rossini. And he smashes the ref in his face. When he spreads his arms out, he accidentally hits a ref in the face. The ref goes down, he's dead.

BETH FRIEND: OK. Well, you brought it in. So we can even hear it.



RANDY DAVIDSON: Yeah, let's listen.

BETH FRIEND: Let's hear it.


RANDY DAVIDSON: And it goes on from there.

BETH FRIEND: What is it that Barkley just screamed?

RANDY DAVIDSON: Well, he says, it's not my opera. First of all, he says, non fu opera mia, which means "this is not my opera." And then it also means "I didn't mean to do it." So he ends up killing the ref. And everybody says, oh, you killed the ref. Isn't it terrible? And then a commissar of baseball or the Commissioner of Baseball wants to take his le scarpe, his shoes, his super cushioned Airmen shoes.

BETH FRIEND: This sounds like a very creative and challenging experience.

RANDY DAVIDSON: Yeah. Yeah, it was.

BETH FRIEND: So is this where you want to go? You want to keep doing commercials? Obviously, it's very lucrative. So on some level, you want to keep--

MAJA BECKSTROM: Well, I was just talking to what might be called an experimental theater artist from New York just a few minutes ago. And he and I were talking about this. And I said, this is very curious. The creative process is no different than working on anything else I've ever done, especially in theater. You're always working to serve the action with music. And that's what I was doing here. I was serving the action of the commercial.

But the problem is, of course, that when you're making a lot of money at it or if the cost of it is a lot of money, then you're no longer considered as seriously as an artist. But suddenly, your relatives are proud to claim you.

BETH FRIEND: So you're watching commercials, I take it?

RANDY DAVIDSON: I am watching commercials intensely. I am studying them. I am going over them with a fine tooth cone. And I found that there are two things that are good about commercials and about 9,000 things that are boring. The good commercials tend to have a joke in them and tend to use the music in a primary way, in some interesting way. And I brought an example with me. It's a bread commercial, and it's terrific. It's very funny.

BETH FRIEND: OK, let's hear it.


RANDY DAVIDSON: It's an Italiano commercial.

BETH FRIEND: You know, when you hear it separate from the visuals and you just experience it as music, you realize how well-written it is and how effective it is.

RANDY DAVIDSON: Yeah. And it's very, very, very effectively done. And it's done in 30-second bits. So you have to cut to the chase. There's no opening remarks musically. You don't wind yourself up to make the point. You hit them smack dab between the eyes from the beginning. The whole set of this is that there are two English guys cooking in a big pot.

And there's a bunch of cannibals who are dancing around, and then the music stops. And then they turn to him and say, you know, we're not Italian. And then they say, oh, well. Then they go back into dancing. And the ad at the end says, you don't have to be Italian to eat Italian, in order to eat Italiano.

BETH FRIEND: So these are the people that want your music now. These are the people that want your talents, your skills.

RANDY DAVIDSON: And I'm more interested now than I've ever been in these issues about how music can be in service of action.


RANDY DAVIDSON: It's really interesting.

BETH FRIEND: We'll be watching and we'll be listening.


BETH FRIEND: Thanks for coming in.


BETH FRIEND: Composer Randy Davidson.


We forgot to mention one of the most important facts about our conversation with Randy Davidson, and that is that his Nike commercial will be premiering at the Paris Opera house on February 15th. Nike has reserved the Paris Opera house. And we just hope that Randy gets a chance to go. Well, from music onto words. From her quiet home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Anne Soukhanov is spying on us. She's a dictionary editor. And it's her job to keep track of words to see how social trends change the English language.

She reads literally dozens of publications each day. And she circles new words and she notes changes in usage where she sees it. This week, Soukhanov was baffled by a string of new words. Really, an entire vocabulary that's cropping up around snowboarding, which, in case you don't know, is a cross between surfing and skateboarding. You strap your feet into a small board and you speed down snow covered hills. But as Soukhanov discovered, you also have to speak the language.

ANNE SOUKHANOV: I was reading several magazines that are specific to the sport, one of which was Transworld Snowboarding magazine. And I was doing this in terms of reading and marking for citational evidence for the American Heritage Dictionary. And when I came across this particular sentence, I realized that I, as an uninitiate, simply didn't know what was going on. I didn't understand a word.

And this is what I read. He found a hit. He christened the Evel Knievel jump. Big airs and big slams. We hooked up with a local free rider only to watch him sky off and disappear in the powder below. And so I looked further through the magazine, and I found words such as fakie, pipe, halfpipe, quarter pipe, cab, half cab.

BETH FRIEND: Well, help us out here. We need some definitions. I'm lost.

ANNE SOUKHANOV: Oh. I was lost right in the beginning. Big air, which evoked in my mind the image of big hair and big sky, really means the elevation that's achieved by the snowboarder when he takes off or when she takes off on a slope. And the photographs in the magazine show snowboarders executing what I call Rudolf Nureyev airs, often involving 180 to 360 degree spins. And in order to gain that big air, you sky off, which is to jump.

And a pipe or a halfpipe is a ditch in the snow that's shaped actually like a pipe. The top has been cut off. And they moved down the pipe and bounce off the sides and execute these very acrobatic moves.

BETH FRIEND: Now, what's a fakie?

ANNE SOUKHANOV: A fakie comes from skateboarding. And it is riding backwards with the right foot forward, if you dare.

BETH FRIEND: I can't even picture it. Any other phrases that might strike us as particularly charming or cute?

ANNE SOUKHANOV: I like the ones that come from the world of rap and MTV, which is interesting because we know that the world of rap and MTV has penetrated many areas of our adult vocabulary. And certainly, it's no surprise that that culture would penetrate a sport such as boarding. Bust, as in bust a half cab, is directly from that world of rap. And it means to do or perform. And going phat comes from one phat dude, and that means to go big or to go well. So I like those words.

BETH FRIEND: Anne Soukhanov, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. She says it takes five to seven years of popular use before a word or an expression will be considered for the dictionary. So you have a little time before you have to say "skying off" in conversation with your friends.


This is First Friday on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm your host, Beth friend. It's 15 minutes before the hour. And so it's time to hear a story. This month, we turn to Langston Hughes. This is his story, Thank you, Ma'am, read by Greg Alan Williams.

GREG ALAN WILLIAMS: She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it, but a hammer and nails. It had a long strap and she carried it slung across her shoulder. It was about 11:00 at night, dark, and she was walking alone when a boy ran up behind her and tried to snatch her purse. The strap broke with a sudden single tug the boy gave it from behind. But the boy's weight and the weight of the purse combined caused him to lose his balance.

Instead of taking off full blast as he had hoped, the boy fell on his back on the sidewalk and his legs flew up. The large woman simply turned around and kicked him right square in his blue jeans sitter. Then she reached down, picked the boy up by his shirtfront, and shook him until his teeth rattled. After that, the woman said, pick up my pocket book, boy, and give it here! She still held him tightly, but she bent down enough to permit him to stoop and pick up her purse.

Then she said, now, ain't you ashamed of yourself? Firmly gripped by his shirtfront, the boy said yes. The woman said, what did you want to do it for? The boy said, I didn't aim to. She said, you a liar. By that time, two or three people passed, stopped, turned to look. And some stood watching. If I turn you loose, will you run, asked the woman. Yes, said the boy. Then I won't turn you loose, said the woman. She did not release him.

Lady, I'm sorry, whispered the boy. Mm-hmm. Your face is dirty. I got a great mind to wash your face for you. Ain't you got nobody home to tell you to wash your face? No one, said the boy. Then it will get washed this evening, said the large woman starting up the street, dragging the frightened boy behind her. He looked as if he were 14 or 15, frail and willow-wild, in tennis shoes and blue jeans.

The woman said, you ought to be my son. I would teach you right from wrong. The least I can do right now is to wash your face. Are you hungry? No, said the being dragged boy. I just want you to turn me loose. Was I bothering you when I turned that corner, asked the woman. No. But you put yourself in contact with me, said the woman. If you think that that contact is not going to last a while, you got another thought coming.

When I get through with you, sir, you are going to remember Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. Sweat popped out on the boy's face and he began to struggle. Mrs. Jones stopped, jerked him around in front of her, put a half nelson about his neck, and continued to drag him up the street. When she got to her door, she dragged the boy inside, down a hall and into a large kitchenette furnished room at the rear of the house. She switched on the light and left the door open.

The boy could hear other rumors, laughing, and talking in the large house. Some of their doors were open, too. So he knew he and the woman were not alone. The woman still had him by the neck in the middle of her room. She said, what is your name? Roger, answered the boy. Then Roger, you go to that sink and wash your face, said the woman, whereupon she turned him loose at last.

Roger looked at the door, looked at the woman, looked at the door, and went to the sink. Let the water run until it gets warm, she said. Here's a clean towel. You're going to take me to jail, asked the boy, bending over the sink. Not with that face. I would not take you nowhere, said the woman. Here I am trying to get home to cook me a bite to eat and you snatch my pocket book. Maybe you ain't been to your supper either, late as it be. Have you?

There's nobody home in my house, said the boy. Then we'll eat, said the woman. I believe you're hungry or been hungry to try to snatch my pocket book. I want a pair of blue suede shoes, said the boy. Well, you didn't have to snatch my pocket book to get some suede shoes, said Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. You could have asked me. Ma'am. The water dripping from his face, the boy looked at her. There was a long pause. A very long pause.

After he had dried his face and not knowing what else to do, dried it again. The boy turned around, wondering, what next? The door was open. He could make a dash for it down the hall. He could run, run, run, run. The woman was sitting on the bed. After a while, she said, I was young ones and I wanted things I could not get. There was another long pause. The boy's mouth opened. Then he frowned, not knowing he frowned.

The woman said, mm-hmm, you thought I was going to say but, didn't you? You thought I was going to say, but I didn't snatch people's pocket books? Well, I wasn't going to say that. Pause. Silence. I have done things too, which I would not tell you, son. Neither tell God if he didn't already know. Everybody's got something in common. So you sit down while I fix us something to eat. And you might run that comb through your hair so you will look presentable.

In another corner of the room behind a screen was a gas plate and a icebox. Mrs. Jones got up and went behind the screen. The woman did not watch the boy to see if he was going to run now, nor did she watch her purse, which she left behind her on the day bed. But the boy took care to sit on the far side of the room away from the purse, where he thought she could easily see him out of the corner of her eye if she wanted to.

He did not trust the woman not to trust him, and he did not want to be mistrusted now. Do you need somebody to go to the store, asked the boy. Maybe to get some milk or something? No, I don't believe I do, said the woman. Unless you just want sweet milk yourself, I was going to make cocoa out of this canned milk I got here. That will be fine, said the boy. She heeded some lima beans and ham she had in the icebox, made the cocoa, and set the table.

The woman did not ask the boy anything about where he lived or his folks or anything else that would embarrass him. Instead, as they ate, she told him about her job at a hotel beauty shop that stayed open late, what the work was like, and how all kinds of women came in and out. Blondes, redheads, and Spanish. Then she cut him a half of her $0.10 cake. Eat some more, son, she said.

When they were finished eating, she got up and said, now here, take this $10 and buy yourself some blue suede shoes. And next time, do not make the mistake of latching on to my pocket book nor nobody else's because shoes got by devilish ways will burn your feet. I got to get my rest now. But from here on in, son, I hope you will behave yourself. She led him down the hall to the front door and opened it. Good night. Behave yourself, boy, she said, looking out into the street as he went down the steps.

The boy wanted to say something other than "thank you, ma'am" to Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. But although his lips moved, he couldn't even say that as he turned at the foot of the barren stoop and looked up at the large woman in the door. Then she shut the door.

BETH FRIEND: Greg Alan Williams reading Thank you, Ma'am By Langston Hughes.


Most of this week was so warm. Balmy 40-degree days just made you ache for spring. Or if you're a certain kind of person, for baseball. So I wasn't surprised to get in the mail a bright yellow postcard with the 1993 Ballpark Tour schedule. The card said to call Julian for early bird discounts on trips like the Bleacher Bums 12 in early July. Julian Epson, whose day job is with the city of St. Paul's public works department, was one of the masterminds behind the Save the Met Movement years ago.

He and his friends have been doing Ballpark Tours together for 11 years. They don't do spring training because it's too corporate. They hold that for the real season and they hit the stadium's then. Favorite stopping points being, of course, the Minor League parks because you bring 50 to a hundred people to a game of a thousand, you control the crowd. You sing O Canada. You talk back to the announcer. And you generally have a great time.

JULIAN EPSON: It's fun. We're not obnoxious. I mean--

BETH FRIEND: You've never been really bad in the Ballpark?

JULIAN EPSON: We've never been thrown out.

BETH FRIEND: OK. But have you been really bad?

JULIAN EPSON: Have we ever been really bad? Well, the closest we got to that-- well, it wasn't as a group. We caught a couple of our individuals one time almost lifting some baseball gloves out of the bullpen during a Major League fight that was occurring. And again, happened to be in Madison. Once again, it was-- well, you might like this story, Steinbach.

BETH FRIEND: No, I don't know anything. You have to define terms, names, everything.

JULIAN EPSON: Terry Steinbach. I'm sure all your listeners would know. Terry Steinbach played the University of Minnesota, now as a catcher for the Oakland A's. Came up through the Oakland organization. We happened to be at the ball game one night in Madison. Again, we're the Muskies. And they have a cheer that goes, goldfish go! And they are creaming the other team. I mean, I can't remember the score. It's probably about 16 to 2.

I mean, sometimes, you go to minor league baseball. You don't see very good baseball. You have fun, but you may not see good baseball. So he comes up in about the seventh or eighth inning and this other team is getting hammered. And he hits a triple that clears the bases. The next batter up kind of sends a fly ball out into the outfield. And it's a short fly. He shouldn't have been running anyway. He's not that fast. He tags up and he starts coming home.

And he should have slid, but the ball was thrown so badly that the catcher-- it got past the catcher before he even had to think about sliding. The catcher didn't block him at the plate. And Steinbach just kind of comes traipsing home, but he misses home plate. So he has overrun the plate. Now traditionally, a catcher on a close play, his objective is to block you from getting to the plate as you're coming in on a close play. But he didn't do that.

Well, now the pitcher is picking up the ball behind home plate. Steinbach now realizes the fact that he missed home plate. So he's trying to get back to the base. Well, the catcher blocks him from getting back to the base, which is normally just the opposite. And they had this huge bench clearing brawl. I mean, everybody is out in the field. And they're fighting with one another.

BETH FRIEND: And you guys are cheering everyone on?

JULIAN EPSON: We're cheering. I mean, because it was--

BETH FRIEND: You're having a great time.

JULIAN EPSON: Well, I mean, when have you ever seen a catcher block you from getting back to the plate? I mean, it was unheard of. So we're just kind of going crazy. And then all of a sudden, we look down and there's one of our crew walking down along to the bullpen. He's going to swipe the gloves-- the bullpen players, because they were the other team. And we kind of said, no, no, no, no, no. You don't really want to do that. But that's about as bad as we get.

BETH FRIEND: Any other outlandish behavior by trip-goers?

JULIAN EPSON: We're at a Minor League game someplace one time. And we're sitting up in the stands and we look down, and here's one of our crew. And, oh, the guy's in his maybe mid-40s or so. And he's signing autographs for all these kids, in which I figure out, who is he signing? What's this autograph stuff for? Well, he comes back to the bus after the game. We're saying, hey, what were you doing? What were you doing?

He says, well, I told them I was the Tiger scout, Boots Day. So I was autographing their gloves and their bats and their balls and everything else. I said, and they believed? And he goes, yeah, yeah. They thought I was Boots Day.

BETH FRIEND: Now, did you tell him that was not in the high moral spirit with which you were attending the game?


BETH FRIEND: Not in those words.

JULIAN EPSON: This is baseball. And baseball is like you got to be able to give it and take it.

BETH FRIEND: Now I take it that the tour attracts a wide variety of characters, right?

JULIAN EPSON: I think we've had kids as young as about six. As a matter of fact, we had a couple of folks on the trip once that were 90 years old.

BETH FRIEND: You just need to be the kind of person who loves baseball purely, with a pure heart.


BETH FRIEND: Because you guys sound like you're so committed in this very lofty, heartfelt way to this sport. I mean, this is not commercialism. This is something of a high order for you.

JULIAN EPSON: It came from God. I mean, that's all there is to it. The game came from God, I'm sure. I mean, it's perfect. I mean, what other sports do you know where the distances were set out 90 feet apart, and a play at first base is just as close today with a good shortstop and a hitter and a first baseman as it was 100 years ago? I mean--

BETH FRIEND: And that's the beauty.

JULIAN EPSON: That's it. I mean, there really has not been much changes now. I don't know what these 28 millionaire jerks running the thing we're going to do to it. And they probably screw it up pretty good in next couple of years. But through all that stuff, you can still see the purity of the game.

I mean, every now and then, you can turn off the salaries that you see and everything else. The game is a beautiful game in and of itself. And I think so much of it is the history of it. I mean, my mother passed the game down to me. I've passed it down to my son.

BETH FRIEND: Baseball lover Julian Epson. And that's First Friday for today. Glad you were with us. Let us know what you think. We'd love to hear your comments. The number is 290-1191. First Friday was produced by Kitty Eisele. Our technical director was Randy Johnson. I'm Beth Friend. Have a great weekend.



Materials created/edited/published by Archive team as an assigned project during remote work period in 2020

This Story Appears in the Following Collections

Views and opinions expressed in the content do not represent the opinions of APMG. APMG is not responsible for objectionable content and language represented on the site. Please use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report a piece of content. Thank you.

Transcriptions provided are machine generated, and while APMG makes the best effort for accuracy, mistakes will happen. Please excuse these errors and use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report an error. Thank you.

< path d="M23.5-64c0 0.1 0 0.1 0 0.2 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.3-0.1 0.4 -0.2 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.3 0 0 0 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.1 0 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.5 0.2 0.1 0.4 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.2 0 0.4-0.1 0.5-0.1 0.2 0 0.4 0 0.6-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.1-0.3 0.3-0.5 0.1-0.1 0.3 0 0.4-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.3-0.3 0.4-0.5 0-0.1 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1-0.3 0-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.2 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.3 0-0.2 0-0.4-0.1-0.5 -0.4-0.7-1.2-0.9-2-0.8 -0.2 0-0.3 0.1-0.4 0.2 -0.2 0.1-0.1 0.2-0.3 0.2 -0.1 0-0.2 0.1-0.2 0.2C23.5-64 23.5-64.1 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64"/>