DATE July 18, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Carol Shields discusses her life and career as an
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Terry Gross is out sick today, so I'm
taking a day from my work at the Philadelphia Daily News to fill in for her.
Today we remember writer Carol Shields. She died Wednesday after a long
battle with breast cancer. She was 68. Shields is best known for her novel
"The Stone Diaries," which won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize as well as a National
Book Critics Circle Award. It was a best-seller in the States and a popular
choice for book clubs.
Success came as a surprise to Shields. She was the mother of five, started
writing late and didn't even publish her first novel until the age of 40. She
wrote 10 novels, two collections of short stories and a biography of Jane
Austen. She spent most of her adult life in Canada. Her husband, Don, was
dean at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. In 1998, after she was
diagnosed with breast cancer, she started writing her novel "Unless." It
was to be her last. Terry Gross talked with Shields last year after the book
"Unless" is about a woman whose life is suddenly changed from relative
happiness to despair when her oldest daughter falls off the track of normal
life. The main character, Reta, is a 43-year-old woman in a comfortable
marriage with three teen-age daughters. Reta is a moderately successful
writer, about to begin a new novel, when her life is turned upside-down.
Here's the first paragraph.
Ms. CAROL SHIELDS (Author, "Unless"): (Reading) `It happens that I'm going
through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I've
heard people speak of `finding themselves' in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit
and body, but I've never understood what they meant: to lose, to have lost.
I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours
and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all
were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I
thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It
takes all your cunning just to hang onto it, and once it's smashed, you have
to move into a different sort of life.'
TERRY GROSS, co-host:
That's Carol Shields reading the opening of her new novel, "Unless."
Was the idea of great unhappiness and loss as foreign to you as it is to your
main character, Reta?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes, I would have to say that's true. Someone, an interviewer,
once asked me what was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. This was
somewhere in the States a few years ago. And I said, `It hasn't happened
yet.' I couldn't think of it. But a short while after that, I had a daughter
going to school at Cambridge, and she was hit by a truck. She was hit so hard
that the windshield shattered on her head. And she survived that accident; in
fact, came through it very well. But when I think of that--and, of course,
the breath leaves my body when I think of it--that would be the great
GROSS: I thought you were going to say the great unhappiness was your
illness. I didn't realize that that had happened to your daughter.
Ms. SHIELDS: Well, yes, of course, and then this. But otherwise, I suppose
I've lived quite a fortunate life. But when I was 63, I was suddenly
diagnosed with breast cancer, and then I did have to--it did change my life
from `before this cancer' to `after the cancer.' I did, of course, as
everyone does, a lot of grieving about this, and trying to pull myself back
together so that I could become a working writer and a working, functioning
GROSS: Was it hard to write again, to find, like, the focus and the interest
in something outside of your own story and your own symptoms and your own
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes, it was very hard to start writing again. Fortunately, I
did have a deadline for a book of short stories that was to be delivered March
the 1st. So I spent about a month not writing, not thinking--well, thinking
that the world does not need another book, particularly a book that I might
write. But what I found, oddly enough, was that it was something to do,
something to do with myself. I had a job of work to do, and it really didn't
matter what it was. I could go to my office and I could work. And so it
turned out to be a distraction, and quite a wonderful distraction.
GROSS: In your novel, the main character's teen-age daughter is living on a
street corner under a lamppost wearing a cardboard sign on her chest that
says `Goodness.' She's living, basically, like a homeless person, not
bathing; her hair is all matted. In your book, characters come up with
different theories, usually different feminist theories...
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes.
GROSS: ...about why this daughter has made herself into a homeless person and
sitting with that sign that says `Goodness' around her chest.
Ms. SHIELDS: Yeah.
GROSS: The mother thinks, `Well, maybe it's because as a woman, she's capable
of thinking of goodness but not of reaching greatness, because a woman's role
is so circumscribed in the world now.' And then another feminist writer
thinks that Norah has simply succumbed to the traditional role of women
without power. She's accepted in its stead complete powerlessness, total
passivity, a kind of impotent piety. In doing nothing, she has claimed
everything. Now, of course--I hope I'm not giving too much away here to say
that their theories are really wrong. Do you see this book, in part, as being
about the limitations of using social theory or feminist theory to actually
understand what goes on in a person's mind?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes. I think, in fact, all the people who offer advice are both
right and all wrong. That is, what has led to this estrangement and this
behavior is all of those things. I remember when I was a child, and my
childhood was in the '40s, late '30s and early '40s. I remember my mother
sitting down with the three children at the kitchen table and saying to us,
`You can be anything you want, even president of the United States.' And I
knew--I must have been about eight years old. And I knew that wasn't true,
and I knew she knew it wasn't true. It was what people said. And my own
daughter, who has a daughter herself, wonders what she can say to her daughter
about what she will be allowed to be and do, how much actual freedom, how much
of her own life she can take hold of. So those were all the things that I was
GROSS: Reta, the main character in your novel, who's a mother and a
writer--she's very conscious of being a woman writer, and she believes that,
sadly, men aren't interested in women's lives and that women's fiction isn't
taken as seriously as men's fiction. Has that been your experience as a
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes, that has been my experience, that most women writers tend
not to be taken as seriously as male writers.
GROSS: How have you felt that in your career?
Ms. SHIELDS: Well, in a sense, I haven't objected. When people say, for
example, that I am a women's writer, what does that mean, really? Does it
mean I write about women? Certainly, that is true; I do. Are my readers
women? Well, yes. I think there are more male readers than there used to be,
but I know that the readers of my fiction are mostly women, of different ages.
And so if that's what it means to be a woman writer--what I was concerned
about is that women characters are so seldom placed as the moral center of a
novel. And if one puts a male character there instead of a woman, the novel
always seems to be taken more seriously. Now you can look at Jane Austen's
novels, of course, as great exceptions. I think they are. I think the women
are, however--they're certainly the center of those novels, and they were the
first novels ever read, by the way, in which there were intelligent women.
But, of course, these women want to secure marriages for themselves,
advantageous marriages. And one thinks at that point is where they lose their
moral authority that they have built up in the book. So I think it's very
hard to write a novel seriously about serious women.
GROSS: As your main character is writing her comic novel about Alicia and
Roman, the couple she's writing about, she says, `I must start thinking
seriously about Alicia and Roman's sex life. I have to be braver about it
this time around. An awful maidenly daintiness runs through the pages of my
previous book, a prudery that has nothing to do with sex in the 21st century.'
What are some of the difficulties you've faced in your books writing about
sex? What are some of the stages you've gone through in trying to figure out
how to do it?
Ms. SHIELDS: How do you do it? Well, the problem is that the language of sex
is so eroded. There are just so many phrases. This is why they have these
marvelous competitions to find out who writes the best, the worst sex scene of
the year. It's very hard to write about something like this: `And then he
pressed his lips against her, then he kissed her full on the mouth,' etc.,
etc. To do it freshly, to do it again, I found that difficult. I found it
difficult because of my generation, because I am now 66 and I came through the
period where I think Ernest Hemingway was not allowed to say `damn' in his
novels; he had to say `darn.' I can't--those were the books I was reading.
Sex was veiled, pretty much, from us. And then I was always thinking--of
course, conscious of the fact that I had children and I had children who went
to school, and I didn't want--I was concerned about them thinking about their
mother writing sex scenes. I realize this sounds a bit ridiculous, but I did
go through that self-questioning.
GROSS: What did you think it would say about you if your children found out
that Mom wrote sex scenes?
Ms. SHIELDS: I think they would have been embarrassed, you know, among their
friends. So I wrote sort of around the sex scenes instead of directly into
GROSS: In your book "The Stone Diaries," the novel that won the Pulitzer
Prize, you're following the life of a woman who was born in 1905 and lives to
the age of 85, so this covers most of the 20th century. But because she's
born in 1905, she's actually very--I shouldn't say because she's born then,
but you're talking about generations. You know, her generational style was to
be very uncomfortable with sexuality. I think for her, sex was more of a
mysterious duty than anything else. Was it easy for you to find her point of
view about sex and to write about it from her point of view?
Ms. SHIELDS: Oh, my, of course, I had a mother born in 1902, and I remember
some of--and my mother did very well compared to most mothers talking about
such things. I remember that she took us to the Art Institute in Chicago
and she told us before we went in, very carefully, that we would be seeing
unclothed men and women, statues, in the Art Institute, and that the human
body was a beautiful thing. And so--but at home, she dressed in the closet,
and so there was another side to her. And I never thought of this as
hypocrisy; I thought she was trying to work this out in her own mind and just
had a little trouble getting it all together.
She did very well, I think, in talking to us about sex. I think she did
better than I did with my children, in fact. But there was a lot that she
missed. And I don't know if I should say this, but I can remember when I was
packing for my honeymoon--this would be 1957--and she wanted to--the honeymoon
was a week long. She wanted to make sure I had seven nightgowns, because she
said, rather obliquely, `It's actually awfully messy.' So that was the
message I got about the sexual life that awaited me.
GROSS: So has writing about sexuality become more comfortable over the years
Ms. SHIELDS: Well, I don't do it as well as some people do. I think other
people are able to do it better than I do, but I do realize that it is part of
all our lives, and you really can't miss it out altogether.
GROSS: Well, I will say that in your new book, the main character is very
comfortable with sex and really seems to enjoy it with her husband, not that
that's at the center of the book, but it's almost like a sanctuary for them in
this terrible time.
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes.
GROSS: It's something that they can still partake in and appreciate.
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes. Yes. So perhaps you're saying it has got easier. And, of
course, my children have grown up.
GROSS: That's right.
Ms. SHIELDS: And we're living in a different era. So...
DAVIES: Writer Carol Shields speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more of
their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with writer Carol Shields,
recorded last year. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel "The Stone
Diaries." Shields died earlier this week after a long battle with breast
GROSS: "The Stone Diaries" is set in the past. It begins in around 1905 and
continues through most of the 20th century. Do you feel like you were able to
use a different voice from your contemporary fiction voice because this novel
is about an older woman, and because so much of it is set in an earlier part
of the 20th century?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes. What you're talking about actually gave me enormous
pleasure in the writing of this book, and I don't think I ever wrote with more
happiness than when I wrote "The Stone Diaries." I did feel that sense of a
period phrase. I can remember, for example, my mother saying to us,
`lickety-split,' and I remember saying it to my children. But my children
don't say it. And so I was very interested in finding period phrases and
getting them into the right era. And do you know the expression, `I'll see
you in the movies'?
Ms. SHIELDS: I was--it means just, `I'll see you around.' And I didn't know
when that came into currency, but one of my colleagues at the university was
able to pin that one down for me to 1929. So I was interested in that kind of
thing and the style of writing. But the book is really about life filtered
through Daisy Goodwill's own brain. Her...
GROSS: She's the main character.
Ms. SHIELDS: She's the main character--through her consciousness. She was a
woman who cared deeply what other people thought about her, and so everything,
all the other voices are really filtered through her consciousness. So that
was a very interesting psychological puzzle, and it also involved a kind of
historical puzzle, because people did speak and wrote letters very differently
in 1910 than they did later on. And, well, I read magazines. I read some old
newspapers, especially the society columns, to get a sense of that voice and
that period sound.
GROSS: In addition to phrases that are now archaic, what are some of the
differences you found in conversation and writing style from the early 1900s?
Ms. SHIELDS: Well, people mostly were more formal in their speech, but, of
course, they were more silent. I always think that the greatest tragedy of
our parents' lives, people of my generation, is that so much went unsaid,
unspoken, unshared. So many silences. Such fear of emotion, such fear of
breaking taboos. I don't honestly believe that the consciousness of an early
20th century person is very much different than the consciousness of today's
society, but I think the language is different, the use of language, the
sparsity of language between people, and the number of things that weren't in
the narrative, that were left out of the narrative.
GROSS: A lot of reading groups, book clubs, chose your book as a book to
read, and, in fact, at the back of one of the paperback editions of "The Stone
Diaries," there are questions that reading groups can use as discussion
points. How do you feel about that? How do you feel about having a list
Ms. SHIELDS: I feel very...
Ms. SHIELDS: ...negative about that. I think anyone who picks up a book
should not have to get to a quiz at the end of it. And I never had it again
and never want to. They do the book club guides now, of course, over the
Internet, but I don't like the idea of this being bound into the book. It
changes the book as we know it, and the shape of the book, the arc of the
book. So I don't think it's a good idea. I belong to a book club. We
wouldn't have used a reader's guide for anything in the world.
GROSS: Why not?
Ms. SHIELDS: Well, we set our own agenda.
Ms. SHIELDS: We had our own questions, our own experiences to bring to the
reading. I think we would have felt put upon. But I also know people who
welcome that kind of direction.
DAVIES: Writer Carol Shields speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last year.
We'll hear more of their interview in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Coming up, we continue our conversation with novelist Carol Shields.
She died Wednesday at the age of 68. Ed Ward tells us about the search for
music around Virginia and Tennessee during America's first recording boom, and
David Edelstein reviews Stephen Frears' new film "Dirty Pretty Things."
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies.
Let's get back to Terry's interview with Carol Shields. She died earlier this
week of complications from breast cancer. Her best-selling novel, "The Stone
Diaries," won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Her last novel, "Unless," was written after she was diagnosed with breast
cancer. It's about a 43-year-old wife, mother and writer who's experiencing
profound unhappiness for the first time in her life. Shields is the author of
10 novels, but she didn't get started until relatively late in life. Her
first novel was published when she was 40.
GROSS: You were married when you were 22, and you had five children in 10
years. Did you fall in love with motherhood?
Ms. SHIELDS: I loved motherhood. People were having large families. This
was through the '60s. I loved children, I was interested in children. Well,
I would say it was a wonderful period of my life. I think I thought it would
go on forever, but, of course, it doesn't, and I mean, the children gradually
become more and more independent and gradually, and quite quickly, you know,
leave home, so I've had an empty nest since 1985.
GROSS: Uh-huh. That's when the last child left home?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes.
GROSS: And how did you discover feminism?
Ms. SHIELDS: I discovered feminism late. I came to feminism late. I knew
there was something wrong, I just didn't know what it was. But, of course,
like many American women, I read Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," and
I have to say it did just--it was like a thunderbolt. I was astonished. I
had no idea women thought like that or women could be anything other than what
they were. That was in the early '60s I read that book. It did change the
way I thought about myself. I did begin to do a graduate degree part time,
thought about doing some writing. It gave me courage.
GROSS: Is that when you started writing?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes, it was about the same time, and that was probably
something of a coincidence of time. I'd had my fifth child and she was going
half-days to school, and I just had a little bit of time and I was writing
poetry in those days. I was very interested in poetry for about five years,
in reading it and writing it, and eventually--these were just published in
small magazines in Canada--eventually, one of the professors at the University
of Ottawa said, `Well, look, we're in the publishing business. If you have 50
poems, we'll publish a book.' So that, in fact, is what they did. And then
they published another book two years later. So I have the two early books of
poetry before I sat down to write a novel.
GROSS: As much as you loved being a mother...
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes.
GROSS: ...as a mother of five who was just kind of discovering feminism and
discovering that you liked to write and had a gift for writing, did you ever
resent all the responsibilities of motherhood?
Ms. SHIELDS: No. I can't think now why I didn't resent it. You know, the
lives of middle-class women of my generation were rather predictable. The
idea that we would marry, you know, even those of us who had a degree. We
would marry, we would have children, we would--I guess I thought we would have
dinner parties. I didn't know women who did really other things, so I
expected that I would do this. It was a very happy period of my life. I have
to say this. I think I had very nice children. It doesn't seem to me that it
was a difficult period. No, it was--there were people all around me doing the
same thing. My women friends, my coffee klatch friends were all doing this,
too, and I sometimes think that the old coffee klatch idea is belittled. But
for us, this was the beginning of feminism for many of us. This is where we
talked about these things for the first time.
GROSS: How did you find time to write as the mother of five, particularly
when your children were young?
Ms. SHIELDS: You know, everyone asks me this, including my own children.
But what my children forget is that I did not have a job, so they're all
raising children and having jobs, but I didn't have a job. So I tried to--I
didn't write until they went to school, and I didn't write on weekends and I
didn't write in the evening. None of this was possible. But I used to try to
get that hour just before they came home for lunch, 11 to 12. You know, got
all the socks picked up, etc., and then I tried to write a couple of pages.
That was all I ever asked myself to do. Then sometimes in the afternoon
before they came home from school, I would get back to those two pages and
maybe have a chance to do them over again. But I really only had about an
hour or an hour and a half a day. But it's funny because now I have the whole
day, and my output is no more than it was then.
But this was how I organized that time, that I would give myself--I wanted two
pages a day, and if I didn't get to my two pages, I would get into bed at
night with one of those--you know, those thick, yellow tablets of lined paper,
and I would do two quick pages and then turn off the light. So that I did
this for nine months; and at the end of nine months, I had a novel. And I
never wrote as quickly again. I never wrote in such an organized way again.
But it was--I could see how it could be done, in little units. I thought of
it like boxcars. I had nine boxcars, and each chapter had a title, starting
with September, then October, November, December. So it was a very easy
structure for someone writing a first novel to follow.
GROSS: Is that the novel that was published, "Small Ceremonies"?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: So you were 40 when that was actually published.
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes, I was.
GROSS: I know that you have stage 4 breast cancer. Was it an act of faith to
start a novel and expect to live at least until the end of it? Or were you
given a kind of good enough prognosis that that wasn't an issue?
Ms. SHIELDS: I wanted something to do. I wanted work to do. I didn't think
I could finish it. My last two novels have been rather long. This one is a
little shorter. And then I had a surgical procedure which gave me three
excellent months where some of my old energy came back to me. So I had those
months to finish the novel, and I was astonished that at the end of August,
one day I looked up and I realized I had finished the novel, and I was so
happy. I wanted to run out in the street and give people money and take in
their mending. I don't remember ever finishing a novel and being so happy
about it. I suppose--I don't know, it's a marvelous blessing.
GROSS: I want to read you another sentence from "The Stone Diaries," and this
is from a chapter that takes place in 1985 when the main character is 80 years
old, and she says, `Suddenly her body is all that matters, how it's let her
down and how fundamentally lonely it is to live inside a body year after year
and carry it always in a forward direction, and how there is never any relief
from the weight of it, even when sleeping, even when joined briefly to the
body of another.'
How does that read to you now?
Ms. SHIELDS: It reads to me like something I would say today. The body that
we live in, the changing body, the aging body, the ailing body, I think we're
very consciously--we can't really get away from it. I suppose we have to find
a place of protection and think as well of ourselves as we can during this
GROSS: A lot of people are very concerned with having a legacy, an artistic
output that will outlive them. Now that you are ill, does it matter any more
or less to you that you will have your books as a legacy?
Ms. SHIELDS: You know, people think that would make a difference. People
say this to me, `At least you've written your books.' People who--the kind of
people who say `What have I done in my life?' etc. But the fact is I don't
think that I--you know, I'm a realist, and I know the shelf life of a book is
about four months. The day that I got the Pulitzer Prize I met Margo
Jefferson, and she said, `You know what this means, don't you?' And I said,
`No, what?' And she said, `You already know the first line of your obituary.'
And, of course, I do, and I have found that rather frightening.
But someone sent me a list of all the Pulitzer Prize winners since something
like 1915, I think, and half of them I'd never heard of, half of them. So I
don't think literary reputations live on, very few of them. Books, you know,
fall out of the public eye. So I don't have a sense of leaving anything
permanent at all. I suppose one thinks of one's children as what you leave
permanently, and their children. Naturally, I like to write books that people
enjoy reading, but the literary legacy, no, it's very unimportant to me.
GROSS: I know you're not well; I know you have cancer. Are you afraid of
Ms. SHIELDS: No, I'm not afraid of death. I've had three years, kind of
bonus years, really, and I think it's just one instant away from being alive.
I don't think it's far away at all, and I'm not afraid of it at all, of
anything involved with it.
GROSS: Well, Carol Shields, I really appreciate your talking with us, and I
wish you the best. Thank you so much.
Ms. SHIELDS: Thank you very much.
DAVIES: Writer Carol Shields speaking with Terry Gross last year. She was
the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Stone Diaries." Her last
novel was "Unless." Shields died earlier this week.
Coming up, some early music recordings from the 1920s. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: Early music recordings from the 1920s
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The American record business was shocked in 1923 when Fiddlin' John Carson
sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his record the "Little Old Log Cabin
in the Lane" and proved that white rural Southerners bought records. Soon
they discovered that black Southerners did, too, and the race was on for
talent. Usually talent scouts relied on local informants, but sometimes they
just set up in a city to see what happened. Music historian Ed Ward reports
on one of the stranger casting calls from that era.
(Soundbite of music)
ED WARD reporting:
In July 1927, the RCA Victor Company sent Ralph Peer to Bristol, a town on the
Virginia-Tennessee border, with a portable recording studio, advancing him
with ads in the local newspapers saying they were looking for talent. At the
end of the 10-day period, Peer had discovered and signed both Jimmie Rodgers
and the Carter Family, laying the foundations for commercial country music and
providing America with two of its first superstar acts.
Peer had begun his career in 1923 at OK Records, which specialized in
hillbilly and race, which is to say black, acts. OK was quite a successful
label, and among its finds were Mississippi John Hurt, the Stoneman Family,
Frank Hutchinson and Roosevelt Sykes, all important pioneers in their varied
fields. Like many other labels, it copied RCA's Bristol strategy. And
recently Rob Currie(ph), a Richmond punk rocker and former member of the band
Gwar, compiled a double CD of the last of these sessions, held in October 1929
in Richmond, Virginia. Like the more celebrated Bristol sessions, this is a
snapshot of what Greil Marcus has called the old weird America, a snapshot of
what ordinary Americans were playing at home in the days before mass media.
(Soundbite of music)
GREENE COUNTY SINGERS: (Singing) When our work on Earth is done and the crown
of victory won, we shall hear a `welcome home' up on high. He will bid us
welcome there, give us mansions bright and fair. Oh, we're sure to share all
that glory by and by. Oh, there's glory by and by, oh, there's glory by and
by. Hear that old trumpet ...(unintelligible) across the sky. Watch and
pray, watch and pray. Watch and pray by night and day, and we all shall have
glory by and by, by and by.
WARD: There were a lot of hymns. Bela Lam had already recorded for OK in
1927 with the group we just heard, the Greene County Singers, who were his
wife, her brother and her mother. Although their previous five records hadn't
sold, OK gave them a shot with two more during this week.
(Soundbite of music)
GOLDEN CROWN QUARTET: (Singing) It is the time of judgment. Yeah. It is the
time of judgment. Yeah. It is the time of judgment. Yes, O Lord, the time
is drawing nigh. I say, the time is drawing nigh. You can read it in
Ephesians. Yeah. ...(Unintelligible). Yeah. Gonna dream about judgment.
Yes, O Lord, the time is drawing nigh. I say the time is drawing nigh. Oh,
you can read it...
WARD: Unlike RCA, OK was looking for black talent and they managed to draw
several a cappella quartets like the Golden Crown Quartet here. It's hardly
surprising that their records flopped. This was a very old-fashioned style
and to the extent that gospel records were selling, it was earthier, more
contemporary artists who were making them. But the weirdest hymn recorded in
these sessions was this one.
(Soundbite of instrumental of "Whispering Hope")
WARD: Yes, that's "Whispering Hope," a classic in a recording by the Tubize
Royal Hawaiian Orchestra, a group largely made up of employees of the local
Tubize Artificial Silk Company(ph). Hawaiian music was big and getting bigger
and no tent show is complete without a Hawaiian band and hula dancers. But
what led this group to decide that a hymn was their path to fame is anybody's
There was also, of course, secular music offered up by the hopefuls, including
one blues performer who had a bit of a local reputation.
(Soundbite of music)
WARD: Nobody's sure who Blues Birdhead was, although it's likely he was James
Simons, a local entertainer who was a favorite with black and white audiences.
But his record has some notoriety because of his odd hornlike style.
Then, of course, there was hillbilly music.
(Soundbite of music)
WARD: Dave Spangler was probably the most famous local fiddler, having
appeared on nationwide radio and won the 1927 Virginia state fiddlers'
contest. His two sides are the most professional in this entire set. The
competition wasn't even close.
(Soundbite of music)
WARD: A performance like the Salem Highballers' "Snowbird on the Ash Bank"
was OK for a barn dance, but since it goes on for three minutes without almost
no variation, it didn't make for such a hot record. The same could be said
for the four sides cut by the Roanoke Jug Band, an old-timey group with a
fiddle, guitar, mandolin and banjo, but for some reason, no jug.
The more I listen to this collection, the more of a disaster OK's trip to
Richmond sounds like, but history dealt them the final blow. Three days after
OK packed up its equipment and went back to New York, the bottom fell out of
the stock market, signaling the beginning of the end for America's first great
DAVIES: Ed Ward writes about music from Berlin.
Coming up, "Dirty Pretty Things." This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Stephen Frears' new movie "Dirty Pretty Things"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Director Stephen Frears broke through in films with Hanif Kureishi's culture
clash drama "My Beautiful Laundrette." Since then, his best work has taken
him far afield from the 18th-century erotic intrigues of "Dangerous Liaisons"
to the seedy pulp LA of "The Grifters." His latest movie, "Dirty Pretty
Things," marks a return to the world of London immigrants and their desperate
attempt to find a home in British society. Film critic David Edelstein has
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
In many underclass crime melodramas, you get a sense that the filmmaker is
lifting up the rock to show you all the parasites scurrying underneath. But
the characters in the English drama "Dirty Pretty Things" are hiding in plain
sight. They're housemaids and busboys, taxi drivers, porters and prostitutes.
They're all recent immigrants to Great Britain, some of them illegal, some of
them forbidden to earn money while they're waiting for visas. And there's a
whole network of people, many recent immigrants themselves, who exploit them
for labor, for sexual favors, even as it turns out, for their innards.
"Dirty Pretty Things" is directed by Stephen Frears from a script by Steven
Knight, an English TV veteran who helped to create the original "Who Wants To
Be A Millionaire?" Maybe it's a stretch, but I detect here a yearning,
grasping undercurrent. The movie is a true-life game show, `Who wants to be a
citizen and what will you give up?'
The hero is a Nigerian illegal immigrant called Okwe played by the English
stage actor Chiwetel Ejiofor who you'll be hearing a lot more about. He has a
face that registers everything, even when he's impassive. We first see him
driving a taxi in an iffy part of London. Later at headquarters, he asks the
boss for a better route and he's furtively led into a back room where the boss
pulls down his pants. It's not what we think. Okwe turns out to be a
doctor, but bosses pulling down their pants is one of the movie's motifs and
it's rarely for medical advice.
Okwe also works as a night porter in a small, discreet hotel alongside
immigrant doormen and chambermaids. When a prostitute named Juliette, also an
immigrant, tells him he should check out a clogged toilet in one of the rooms
he discovers a heart, a human heart. Okwe brings his discovery to the hotel
manager, played with unsavory relish by Sergi Lopez. The man goes by the name
of Sneaky and you'll know why in this scene.
(Soundbite of "Dirty Pretty Things")
Mr. SERGI LOPEZ: (As Sneaky) What's this, lunch?
Mr. CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Okwe) It was blocking the lavatory in Room 510.
It is a heart, a human heart.
Mr. LOPEZ: What?
Mr. EJIOFOR: Perhaps you should phone the police.
Mr. LOPEZ: Police? You think I should phone the police?
Mr. EJIOFOR: Senior Juan, someone is dead.
Mr. LOPEZ: OK. You speak to them. You found it, you do the talking. I
will introduce you. What's your full name, Okwe? And you never told me where
you're from or even how come you're here in this beautiful country. Hello?
Police? Yeah, look, somebody who wants to talk to you.
Unidentified Woman: Hello? Hello? Hello?
(Soundbite of phone hanging up)
EDELSTEIN: The rest of "Dirty Pretty Things" is Okwe's struggle with his
conscience. It's not in his interest to know, but he needs to know what's
going on behind those closed doors. Whatever it is is monstrous and it
threatens to swallow a woman he cares for, a Turkish chambermaid called Senay
who's working illegally and dreams of escaping to America. Senay is played by
the French actress Audrey Tautou of "Amelie." She has to speak not only in
English but Turkish-accented English, and it gives her a roughness and a
hesitancy that cuts through some of the "Amelie" gamine shtick.
Okwe is probably too much of a saint to be true and the movie has a tough of
Paul Mazursky's sentimental "Moscow on the Hudson" in its theme of `fellow
immigrants in this together.' But director Frears and his great
cinematographer Chris Menges charge the images with perverse wit. The film
has an underground luster. The settings are back corridors and garages and
alleyways and sub-subbasements. Okwe's only friend is a sardonic Chinese
immigrant played by Benedict Wong who works in a hospital morgue. The two
play chess games amid the gurneys, which are sometimes sterile and sometimes
not. The whole movie is a little like that: gleaming but with a whiff of the
charnel house. It's a film about the immigrant culture that cuts to the bone
or at least to the vital organs.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
The great Celia Cruz, the Cuban singer who became the queen of Latin music,
died earlier this week at the age of 77. We'll close with her recording of
"No Encuentro Palabras," recorded in 1956.
(Soundbite of "No Encuentro Palabras")
Ms. CELIA CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish)
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