There was a time when the federal government undertook great projects that aimed to better the lives of its citizens, from the campaign to eradicate polio and the establishment of the Social Security Administration to the race to put a man on the moon. But those were the days of "big government," the demise of which President Clinton declared in 1996. As far as progressive domestic policy is concerned, he was right.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is one of the remaining crown jewels from the big government era, but its legacy is a vexing one in ways that could not be foreseen when its first project, Norris Dam in northeastern Tennessee, went online in 1936. Nor could the ancestors of Durham photographer Jeff Whetstone necessarily foresee the larger implications as they watched the federally commissioned utility flood their farm beneath what became Watauga Lake.
Now Whetstone's collection of family photographs, TVA archival images and oral history will form one part of a new audio-visual extravaganza at Durham's Casbah, which also features Mike Wiley and M.C. Taylor (who performs as Hiss Golden Messenger). It's the second iteration of Professor Diablo's True Revue, a new bi-monthly series of documentary multimedia curated by its founder, Duncan Murrell, who is writer-in-residence at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
Today, environmentalists look on in horror as China, in particular, expands its coal consumption and re-routes rivers in search of both energy and clean water. In the 1930s, however, development meant jobs and a more comfortable standard of living, both of which were in short supply in the Appalachians of that era. It also meant, for families like Whetstone's forebears, that the periodic flooding that plagued the region would be brought under control. But civilization's mastery of nature was small comfort, as we learn in the piece.
But if the environmental consequences of such drastic landscape engineering were unclear in those days, it didn't take long for artists to mourn a different kind of loss—a wild frontier and a defiantly independent homesteading culture that went with it. Elia Kazan's 1960 film Wild River, with Montgomery Clift, was one dramatization of the clash, as was the more notorious 1972 John Boorman film, Deliverance, adapted from James Dickey's great novel.
Indeed, it was a scene from Deliverance that I heard, along with the laughing voices of a half-dozen men, when I recently dropped in on a seemingly un-air conditioned studio in downtown Durham. The six men were in their late 30s or early 40s, mostly native Southerners and all distinguished artists in the area: Whetstone, actor, playwright and filmmaker Wiley, musician Taylor, novelist Eric Martin and photographer Alex Maness, along with Murrell, who is a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine. Five are white, one is African-American, and all of us are creatures of modern comforts, such as the several laptops and smartphones glowing in the room's fading light. Collectively they are preparing a program of music, video, photography and theater devoted to the legacy of power—in its various senses—in the Appalachians.
The men spend time working out the kinks to the multimedia program, trying to settle on the effects they want to create with their stagecraft.
Whetstone: It should be almost like ... made up before your eyes and then it's gone—
Murrell: —and that's it!
Whetstone: It's not like a piece of bread. It's like a biscuit. [laughter]
Murrell: I'm in the audience, and I'm the collaborator. I'm participating—
Whetstone: If we can make the room feel like it's us telling each other stories, musically, photographically, with voices—
Murrell: It'll feel like those people [in the photos] are in the room.
Often, it's Taylor who zeroes in on key emotional beats—"We want it raw, not as a history lesson"—while Murrell encourages the performers to take risks and Martin, acting as de facto stage manager, times the parts and notes the progression of cues and sequences.
In the program's first section, Whetstone, a Guggenheim fellow who teaches photography at UNC, projects old TVA archival photos along with snapshots of his Tennessee mountain forebears in the now-vanished town of Fish Springs in Carter County between Johnson City and Mountain City, as well as some of his own recent work, including photos taken of graffiti in caves of the region. Meanwhile Wiley recites dramatic excerpts of interviews Whetstone conducted with his family members, interviews that include a harrowing account of the periodic floods that would wash away farms, animals and people prior to the TVA's engineering improvements.
Wiley has credits that include his staging of Tim Tyson's Blood Done Sign My Name, along with such original works of documentary theater as The Parchman Hour at PlayMakers Rep in Chapel Hill, but his major contribution to the program is his tribute to a masterpiece by another artist, John Sayles. The night's second half, then, will move from documentary reportage into a highly researched realist fiction set just to the north, in West Virginia, when Wiley presents a 30-minute dramatic distillation of the 1987 Sayles film Matewan, backed by Hiss Golden Messenger, a charismatic guitarist and singer whose music draws deeply from the well of the American mystic folk tradition.
The film also spawned a book by Sayles called Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan. Still in print 25 years later, the book influenced the succeeding generation of filmmakers, including Wiley when he was a young actor starting out.
"I found it in a used bookstore," Wiley tells me, "at a time when I was looking for something to inspire me."
The book led Wiley to the movie, a harrowing tale of efforts to organize a group of West Virginia miners and the brutal measures that were employed against them. For young viewers like this writer, the effect of seeing the forces of American capitalism and law enforcement arrayed against common working stiffs was galvanizing—readers encountering Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States often have the same reaction.
The influence of the film is startling; for one thing, it's an important early film for several careers: Among the cast members are Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell and a teenage Will Oldham, later to become a sui generis folkish singer-songwriter under handles such as Palace Music and Bonnie "Prince" Billy. At the time, however, the film's only "star" was James Earl Jones. (It was Oldham's involvement that brought Taylor to the film.)
Matewan put Sayles into the national indie film spotlight, although he'd been producing novels and films for years. In April, Sayles was invited to the Duke campus to receive a career achievement award from the Nicholas School of the Environment. While Sayles, as an old-school labor guy, might seem an odd choice for an environmental award, it's become clear in these warming days that just as capitalism exploits and degrades humans, it does the same to the environment. In Reynolds Industries Theater, Sayles read a vivid passage about the damage done to both the earth and miners in A Moment in the Sun, his Tolstoyan, 968-page novel that includes the 1898 Wilmington, N.C., "racial coup" as a key flashpoint.
That same weekend, Wiley and Taylor were invited to perform their theatrical rendering of Matewan for Sayles, his partner and an invited group of Duke benefactors (it was Alumni Weekend). Wiley says the work was well received by the guests of honor.
For Murrell, the Professor Diablo series represents his effort to promote a broader vision of documentary production. He notes that a great documentary achievement of the Great Depression, the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was a similarly holistic combination with the writing of James Agee and the photographs of Walker Evans.
The key factor that undergirds all good documentary work, according to Murrell, is fieldwork. And judging by the reception of April's inaugural show, which featured writer Donovan Hohn, filmmaker Marina Zurkow and musician Django Haskins, there is an audience eager for the fruits of the documentarians' labor.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Underworld."