Bang the drum slowly

St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square facing the Mississippi River. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square facing the Mississippi River. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

The night was a feast for the senses. We walked into hot, steamy and packed Vaughns, everybody dancin’, greeted by Kermit Ruffin’s wailing St. James Infirmary. Dan Baum’s book Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans came to mind: “what lit Wil up inside was the music – a ship on the river sounding it’s horn across the Marigny, the clickety-clack of the trains along the Press Street tracks accompanied by the eighth-note ding-ding-ding of the signal lights at Dauphine…the music was all around him and inside him.”

New Orleans, Dan Baum writes, finds itself “perpetually whistling past the graveyard.” It is somehow fitting that St. James Infirmary, a blues single was first recorded by the New Orlean’s trumpeter Louis Armstrong in December 1928.  St. James Infirmary is a death lament, rooted in a 18th century English folk song The Unfortunate Rake. This same ballad inspired the birth of the cowboy dirge the Street’s of Laredo, which in turn inspired Emmylou Harris and Guy Clark to write in memory of Emmylou’s father the poignant Bang the Drum Slowly.  New Orleans jazz funeral bands accompanying a procession to the cemetery typically play dirges and hymns, slow sober songs like Nearer My God to Thee, Old Rugged Cross or St. James Infirmary. The lyrics of the three songs mashup well, a testament to their origin…went down to St. James Infirmary, saw my baby there, sat down on a long white table, so sweet, so cold, so fair…get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin, get six pretty maidens to bear up my pall, put bunches of roses all over my coffin, roses to deaden the clods as they fall…bang the drum slowly, play the pipe lowly, to dust be returning, from dust we begin.”

In August 2005, just days before hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans forever, I attended the Society of American Archivist’s  (SAA) annual meeting in The Big Easy. Eight years later the archivists returned to honor and engage with the life of this unique American city. The Quarter, six feet above sea level, experienced Katrina as just another hurricane, water rose, and it drained away. But the Lower Ninth Ward on the south side of the canal and below Lake Pontchartrain, was devastated when the levee broke, and an African-American community lay on it’s death bed and nearly passed away. Dan Baum described life across the canal in the Lower Ninth Ward in the mid-20th century as “heaven for newcomers from the country…the lots…big enough for chickens, pigs and even horses…neighbors understood each other…you took care of your family, sat on your porch in the evening, and went to church…a quiet country life right there by good waterfront jobs.” Change is the essence of life, and we must accept this truth. The Lower Ninth Ward will never regain it’s former self, but rebuilding is underway. Organizations like and Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation are putting volunteer energy and funding into creating new homes for the Lower Ninth’s community members. Many archivists participated in SAA’s service day serving as volunteers with during the annual meeting; Bill Ross, Head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of New Hampshire where he teaches a class New Orleans: past, present and future, organized this opportunity working with Lowernine.

Oaks in the Texas State Cemetery.  Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Oaks in the Texas State Cemetery. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

The last week of August 2013 my stepsister Linda died after a five-year battle with cancer. Linda was a wonderful person:  devoted to her family and friends, fun, and smart…so smart. I know life is about impermanence, but the pain feels so permanent for those that loved her. And so many loved her; she was a much beloved daughter, friend, mother, and wife. Attending her funeral at the graveside in Texas, I remixed (again) and riffed on the lyrics of St. James Infirmary, Streets of Laredo, and Bang the Drum Slowly: let her go, let her go, god bless her…we beat the drum slowly and played the fifth lowly, and bitterly we wept as we bore her along, take her to the valley and lay the sod o’er her, for she’s a young cowgirl and she did no wrong.

more or less

Chicago’s Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler.

From a distance, the sprawling city of Chicago soars from the flatlands like the emerald city of Oz.  So accustomed to California’s topography  — rugged coastlines, deserts and mountains honed by earthquake and tide, wind and rain — I am enchanted by the Midwest with it’s boundless horizon punctuated solely by skyscrapers; bold sentences spoken by vertical and horizontal voices. My profession brought me earlier this month to Chicago, home of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), serving on the program committee, shaping our summer 2013 annual meeting. Early Sunday morning I walk Chicago’s streets awestruck by the artistry of the built environment. Sunrise flirts momentarily on the glazed terra cotta, accessorizing these temples of industry in pink and orange. Laura Tatum’s spirit accompanies me as I walk amongst these towering icons of American architecture on my way to the meeting. Chicago, a living building museum, graced by artifacts in a range of styles, created by Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van Der Rohe.

A prairie city, Chicago is home for corporations monetizing the labor of farmers and ranchers and now profiting from the labor of programmers and analysts. Migrants of all nationalities, races, and creeds – from all compass points – came to Chicago to work in factories and services spinning straw into gold (turning raw into retail). Barrack Obama, our first African-American President and native-son of Hawaii, elected last week for a second-term, like so many others was drawn to Chicago and makes his home here – this land of Lincoln. The 1871 Chicago Fire wiped the slate clean and a new city rose on the shores of Lake Michigan giving birth to the skyscraper, a building type made possible primarily by the manufacture of inexpensive steel able to frame and support multi-storied structures. Chicago architect Louis Sullivan considered by many the “father of skyscrapers” coined the phrase “form follows function.” These skyscrapers were and remain today the home offices for many corporations.

My hotel room, situated above the Chicago River provided wonderful views of North Michigan Avenue’s Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower. Built in 1921 in the neoclassical style, the Wrigley Building, an early skyscraper sheathed in white terra cotta, glows when lit at night. Personally, it provides a visual and stylistic reminder of the buildings populating Burnham’s White City also-known-as the Chicago World’s Fair. Across the avenue, is the Tribune Tower, a product of the 1922 international design competition held by the Chicago Tribune newspaper. While this gothic-revival design won, the competition inspired many modernist architects to envision skyscrapers in the emerging international style.  One of these young architects, Mies van de Rohe, soon to become a “master” at the Bauhaus and its last Director, submitted a visionary design for a Tribune Tower with transparent plate glass walls on a steel frame. Known for his clarity and simplicity, Mies, is perhaps most famous for his Barcelona Pavilion and Villa Tugendhat. Given the outcome of the Tribune Tower competition, it is somewhat ironic that Mies would become the Director of Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology bringing his “less is more” design aesthetic to what is now known as the Second Chicago School of architecture.

it must have been the roses

American Beauty. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler

Two years ago, I came to the UC Santa Cruz University Library to manage the project team building GDAO, the Grateful Dead Archive Online.  The petals have all unfolded and the roses are now in bloom. On June 29, 2012 –  just another day at Redwoodstock – we celebrated the opening of the Grateful Dead Archive and the Dead Central Exhibit space  and the launching of GDAO. We sang the song electric for the living archive of all things dead. From the attics of their lives, full of cloudy dreams unreal, all lights all eyes can see, all that’s still unsung.  In just over twenty-four hours, almost ten-thousand visitors from around the world from China to Iran have browsed and searched GDAO and contributed content.  Building GDAO, has been a long strange trip taken with some amazing pranksters dedicated to digitizing the collection, creating metadata, designing the website, considering fair use, searching for rights holders, programming GDAO’s functions and building the virtual machine.  So, as this spectacular tour comes to a close, we know another show lays ahead just a little further down the road.  Update from goin’ down the road and feelin’ “glad”: electronic records archivist Jeanne Kramer-Smythe blogged so sweetly about GDAO in her recent entry Grateful Dead Archive Online: First Impressions  Yee Hah!

landscape of memory

On Sunday April 4, 2010 a 7.2  earthquake rocked Baja California and the desert lands near San Diego, Anza Borego and the Salton Sea.  For nearly a minute tectonic forces were oblivious to international boundaries and struggling peoples trying to make ends meet on either side of the border.

Anza-Borego Desert East of San Diego. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

Such a jolt shakes personal and collective memories  to the surface…quakes I have known myself such as October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta or quakes I have mythologized such as April 18,  1906  San Francisco.  On October 17, 1989 after leaving the Montgomery Street BART station, I walked the six miles home.  Gone were the thoughts of seeing the opening game of the World Series Giants versus the Athletics  as I hiked past the milling crowds of displaced persons, broken glass, fallen bricks, and scent of natural gas. I heard snatches of news from people sitting on their front porches with battery powered transistor radios reporting fires in the Marina District, the collapsed Cypress Structure in the East Bay, and the severe damage to the Bay Bridge.  I trudged onward uncertain as to what I would find at home in Noe Valley.   Sometime later, I reached the Mission District and walked up the Dolores Street hill where with enough elevation, I was able to get my first view of the city.  I turned slowly, dreading what I might see, but the city was intact — yes there were fires and yes I knew some person’s lives would be changed irrevocably, but at that moment it was not the chaos and extensive devastation I feared.  Suddenly I realized where I was standing  at 20th and Dolores the site of the Golden Hydrant.

Taking a quote from “On the morning of April 18, 1906 on the slopes of Noe Valley overlooking the Mission district, Dolores Park was packed with displaced citizens watching the fire advance from downtown. This hydrant across the intersection of Dolores and 20th streets was found to have water, but the exhausted horses could not pull the fire engines up the hill. The people mobilized to do the job, then spread out under the firefighters’ direction and, with crude tools and hand labor, stopped the flames”  and saved the Mission District  from the advancing fire. This hydrant is painted gold in a special ceremony every April 18th at 5:40AM.

That sense of a shared history and a collective memory with San Franciscan’s past and their strength to rebuild after tragedy gave me courage to keep struggling forward. David Blight in his book Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War describes collective memory as “the ways in which groups, peoples, or nations remember, how they construct a version of the past and employ them for self-understanding and to win power and place in an ever-changing present.”  I think San Franciscan’s proudly tap collectively into the  memories and mythologies of the ’06 earthquake drawing strength to overcome these unstable times.

Aftershocks continue here in San Diego, and daily National Public Radio updates me with news of the 6.9 earthquake in Quinghai, China near Tibet and the eruption of the glacier bounded volcano in Iceland.   Amid these geologic statements that humble humankind reminding us that we cannot and should not expect to control all,  I continue to work on my paper  considering digital libraries and the  “Landscape of Memory” and think about the role of archivists in shaping history and memory as described by Rand Jimerson in Archives Power as generations pass, written records and other forms of documentation must take the place of personal memory….. Historians have also begun to recognize that archives are not simply locations to examine authentic and reliable records of the past, but are also active agents in the shaping of what we know of human history….the role of archivists in this interplay of history, truth, memory and evidence requires examination.  As collectors, guardians, appraisers and interpreters of the archival record, archivists actively shape society’s knowledge of the past. “

A New Deal

Born in the 1970s in the African American, Afro-Carribean and Latino communities of the Bronx, Hip Hop culture includes DJing, breakdancing, graffiti writing and rapping.  According to Johnny Otis, rhythm and blues musician and teacher, in 1975, Mayor Abe Beame was faced with New York City going bankrupt. His choices were few as neither the federal or state governments would come to his aid.  So, to solve his problem he fired over 19,000 city workers, and 15,000 of those workers were teachers responsible for instruction in the humanities: literature, art and music.  Suddenly a generation of children had no access to instruments and formal music instruction.   But ever resilient, these communities looked inward, drew upon their cultural heritage and created a new musical genre “rap,” one of the pillars of hip hop culture, using all that was available to them: language and percussion.  The human spirit creates no matter how stripped bare. 


Despair. Copyright 2007 Robin L. Chandler

Today our society, and by default, our educational systems are undergoing transformative change. To manage the fiscal crisis, our California state government is making deep cuts to our public universities, and campus and university administrators are now struggling with how to manage these reductions that will no doubt profoundly change our educational system. They will be faced with choices making decisions about what programs, what departments what campus units are sustainable and support the core mission of the university.  External funding from public and private sources, though comprised during this economic crisis, continues to be available to support research in medicine, science and engineering, but not so readily available to the arts and humanities, Institute Museum Library Services (IMLS), National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanites (NEH), National Historic Publications Record Commission (NHPRC) and the Mellon Foundation being among the most valiant exceptions.  Writing in the New York Times recently, Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University wrote “since the 1970s there has been a steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences, and an accompanying increase in pre-professional undergraduate degrees. Business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify.  As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.”


Oakland gritty streets. Copyright 2007 Robin L. Chandler

In the September issue of Harpers Magazine, Mark Slouka (Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia University) wrote “the humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth.”  Slouka also wrote “By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe.”

During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration invested in creating jobs across a wide spectrum including the arts and humanities. These became the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theater Project and the Federal Writer’s Project.  There was also the Historic Records Survey which employed archivists to identify, collect and conserve historic records throughout the United States.  Rand Jimerson writes in the introduction to his recently published book Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice “Archivists [can] contribute to a richer human experience of understanding and compassion. They can help protect the rights of citizens, and to hold public figures in government and business accountable for their actions. Archivists provide resources for people to examine the past, to understand themselves in relation to others, and to deepen their appreciation of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. This is the essence of our common humanity.” Archives and teaching in the humanities are crucial to the formation of citizens able to participate fully in our democracy.

In February 2009, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ARRA which included stimulus funding making investments in infrastructure such as transportation, public schools, college financial aid, renewable energy programs, healthcare and homeland security.  Conspicuously absent is direct funding for teaching and research in the arts and  humanities, nor for libraries and archives. In his public high school rhetoric class Marcus Eure provides students with critical thinking skills as they study issues about civic morality.  Eure believes “every marriage, every job, every parent-teacher meeting hinges in some way on the ability to understand and empathize with others, to challenge one’s beliefs, to strive for reason and clarity. “  The time is now to invest and provide federal stimulus packages in our arts, humanities, libraries and archives.  It is our duty and obligation to the future, to build citizens to grapple with the challenges of today.