Author Archives: Carl Zimring

About Carl Zimring

I study junk and talk trash. Author of Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America and general editor of The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage.

The Best Music of 2017

2017 was a brutal year in many ways, and no less so in the world of music. Many of the musicians who informed the sensibilities of my past lists died, some long before their time. That directly shaped this year’s list and inspired the creation of the records at the #1 and #10 slots. Click on each album title to hear selections from each record and instructions to support the musicians by purchasing their work.

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Karl Hendricks died in January at the age of 46. During his life, he wrote, taught, was the buyer for (and eventually owner of) Pittsburgh’s best new records store, and released nine records. In all of these endeavors he set a standard for excellence combined with a quiet, wry decency that sought to help people find hidden excellence. His life made many lives better.

No surprise, then, that when Karl became ill, the community of people he touched came to his aid with fundraisers in 2014 and 2015. In the days after Karl’s memorial service, a plan to use Bandcamp to assemble a benefit record for his family quickly fell into place. The musicians on this tribute range from the highly recognizable (Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo, Chris Brokaw) to those that toured with Karl (Kyle Sowashes). Tracks by fans who never met the man adjoin those from friends and coworkers who knew Karl for more than a quarter of a century. Karl’s lyrics tempt comparisons to Raymond Carver for his precise details about the lives of working people, though my mind goes to Pittsburgh writer Jim Daniels as the closest analogue. His melodies and beautifully composed guitar parts produced songs sturdy enough to withstand adaptations into country music (The Beagle Brothers), electronica (Entertainment), and, well, incompetence (The Card Party).

That last track is mine. Yes, a record I played on is #1 on my list. I make no claims to objectivity here, nor do I see this fact as a conflict. Music does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of the cultural fabric of communities. I am part of the community that benefited immeasurably from Karl’s contributions to Pittsburgh and the world, and so I am part of this small contribution by the community paying respects to the man as well as a listener who deeply appreciates the music on this compilation.

One of the benefits of making this record a Bandcamp release is the project could grow gradually over time from its initial release date. As of this writing, 22 different artists have contributed to a living, evolving tribute. The Wheel & the Alphabet is not the only home of a Karl Hendricks tribute this year (the Gotobeds’ brilliant cover of “Flowers Avenue” came out late in the fall), but it does a fine job of showing the influence and brilliance of the man. Thanks always to Karl for showing us the best way forward.

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You know Cohen from his work in Silkworm and Bottomless Pit over the past quarter century. (If you do not, and you are somehow reading this anyway, just BUY EVERYTHING NOW and enjoy.) Here, Chicago trio Light Coma acts as his Crazy Horse for a mostly-electric set of new songs. Cohen’s ability to turn mundane details into poignant character sketches has defined his work at least as far back as “Don’t Make Plans This Friday,” and here it shines through in the opening “Repack,” a collection of overhead children’s dialogue that becomes a swirling anthem. Neil Young comparisons come with the alternately gentle acoustic fingerpicking and shrieking electric lead lines, as well as the decision to close each side of the record with alternate versions of “Midwest DTs.” If these are Cohen’s “ditch years,” may a flurry of releases come soon, as his voice is a distinctive one that I always have time to appreciate.

Dream Syndicate, How Did I Find Myself Here? (Anti-)

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In the three decades since the Dream Syndicate’s last proper album Ghost Stories, leader Steve Wynn has sharpened his writing further, become an even better guitarist, and forged a partnership with stunt guitarist Jason Victor that has been the most sustained collaboration Wynn’s had with any lead guitarist. Here Wynn and Victor team up with the Ghost Stories rhythm section (as well as that album’s coproducer Chris Cacavas on keyboards and, for one track, original bassist Kendra Smith on vocals) to create a record as informed by the care and craft of the Miracle 3 records as the cacophony of 1980s-era Dream Syndicate. What is especially glorious is how Victor takes to the sound and sensibility of the earlier band, matching the violence of anything Karl Precoda or Paul Cutler did on record. The result is a record that is fully in the spirit of past triumphs without ever feeling derivative, and possibly Wynn’s finest record since Here Come the Miracles.

OUT, Swim Buddies (Comedy Minus One)

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The singalong (yell-along) album of the year comes from veterans of Kalamazoo’s Minutes, who bring the rock and then get out of the way…eleven songs in half an hour, none feeling rushed nor wasting a second. “Left for Dead” is one of the more inspiring songs possible with a title like that, and if you manage to listen to “Cyclists” or “Back That Truck Up” and don’t get their hooks lodged in your consciousness, then we simply are wired differently. I am grateful (though not surprised) that Swim Buddies is sufficiently faithful to OUT’s exhilarating live sound.

Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc)

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Covering “Vegetable Man” while with the Soft Boys no doubt cemented Hitchcock as an acolyte of Syd Barrett, but his own music reveals a writer more grounded on Earth…indeed, his placement of people within ecosystems featuring insects, fish, and birds make him one of the least anthropocentric songwriters I know. He is also a terrific guitarist influenced by the 60s British folk-rock movement at least as much as he is by Barrett and John Lennon, and these ten tracks show off his chops and wryly fatalistic lyrics alongside contributions by past collaborators Gillian Welch and Grant Lee Philips as well as new ones in his current Nashville home. The mood reminds me of a cross between 1989’s Queen Elvis and 2004’s Spooked, though more electric than the latter and less self-consciously weird than the former. (No less funny, though, including a song about the lead character in the ridiculous film Mindhorn.)

 

Joel RL Phelps and the Downer Trio, Consulate (12XU)

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Joel Phelps is a master interpreter of songs, as evident by the inspired covers he has released of songs as diverse as the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” and Iris Dement’s “Calling for You.” Here he and the Downer Trio (joined by Marino Correia) reinterpret four of his own songs, all spare acoustic versions of tracks from Gala, their 2013 album. The effect evokes the skeletal arrangements of the mostly-covers Inland Empire record while reminding listeners of how strong the Gala songs are. Brilliant as always, and a fine companion to the 2013 LP.

Clipping, Splendor and Misery (Sub Pop)

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This came out in 2016, but I didn’t hear it until the winter. (Somehow my attention span for Daveed Diggs’s work in the fall was absorbed completely by his recurring role on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.)  Splendor and Misery reminds me of science fiction radio plays of the early 80s (most famously the original version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) as filtered through an Afrofuturist perspective ranging from hiphop to gospel and just enough white noise to make this lodge into my brain.

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Halvorson’s Away With You was on last year’s list; this record departs from the ensemble sound of that one by emphasizing the virtuosic interplay between Halvorson’s guitar and Courvoisier’s piano. That said, the contrast is not that great. Initially, Crop Circles lulls you into complacency as tracks start slowly, then gradually pick up in intensity as both spew dense clusters of notes that flesh out the sound as if a large band was playing. Not recommended listening if it makes you lose faith in your own guitar or piano abilities, but if insecurity is not a problem, enjoy this spirited duet of two confident, dexterous musicians.

Game Theory, Supercalifragile (KCM Records)

SupercalifragileCoverThe first half of this record is vintage Scott Miller. Witty lyrics, incredibly melodic guitar and keyboards, and that distinctive voice singing songs that rank with the best of his 90s work with the Loud Family. Hell, they rank with his 80s classics, making the resurrection of the Game Theory name worthy.

The second half is distracting. Painfully so, due not at all to the people who worked on it and entirely due to the circumstance that necessitated its existence. The problem is Miller’s voice is only detectable as writer, as friends and fans ranging from Aimee Mann to Ted Leo take over lead vocals. This was unavoidable, as Supercalifragile is a posthumous release painstakingly assembled by Miller’s widow and Ken Stringfellow, and their work is remarkable in achieving the level of detail that was a hallmark of Miller’s craft. In a vacuum, these tracks are beautiful and thoughtfully rendered in Miller’s style. Listening to them just reminds me that this distinctive, talented, and very nice man is no longer with us. The one exception is his onetime bandmate Alison Faith Levy’s one lead vocal, as I can fool myself into thinking it a spotlight feature for her made under normal conditions. I may grow to enjoy these tracks more and greatly appreciate the work that went into them, but I would be lying if I said I enjoyed them as much as the great Miller tracks on the first half.

Archival Release of the Year

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Alternate title Thank You So Much Terry Katzman. This 3 CD/4 LP set documents the early years Grant Hart, Bob Mould, and Greg Norton played together, with much better audio fidelity on contemporary live work than found on Land Speed Record. Katzman’s tapes made this possible, and this surpasses the Rhino edition of Everything Falls Apart and More as the best sounding CDs from the band. May Numero Group have the opportunity to treat the band’s later  work with the same care; for now, this serves as a fitting tribute to Hart, who died a few weeks before the set was released.

Also well worth your time: Lardo, SinkingMark Eitzel, Hey Mr. Ferryman, Xetas, The Tower, The Bismarck, Follow Your Heart, and Jon Langford, Four Lost Souls.

Check the links for information on purchasing these fine records and compensating their creators, or in the case of too many of these records, the creators’ surviving loved ones.

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Resources for Observing and Understanding America Recycles Day

recycle-logoWednesday is America Recycles Day. It’s a day that reveals the complex history of industry, consumer society, and our attitudes towards the environment.

Time magazine’s 2016 feature on the history of recycling, featuring interviews with Susan Strasser, Bartow Elmore, and me. I encourage readers whose curiosity is whetted by our quotes to seek out Susan’s book Waste and Want, Bart’s book Citizen Coke, and my Cash for Your Trash for elaboration.

My 2017 post for the Organization of American Historians on the history of recycling. I allude to it in the footnotes, but Samantha MacBride’s Recycling Reconsidered is an indispensable book for understanding how the system of recycling functions (and does not function).

This 2016 episode of BackStory Radio featuring segments with Brett Mizelle and Catherine McNeur, Robin Nagle, David Sklansky, Elmore, and me provides more historical context for what and how we discard, and how private and public recycling programs are shaped by that history. The episode concludes with an interview of Gary Anderson, who designed the recycling logo that appears at the top of this post.

Aluminum Upcycled at the Society for the History of Technology meeting in Philadelphia, October 26-29.

zimringpostedThe Society for the History of Technology is holding its annual meeting in Philadelphia this year, and I will discuss my book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective (available now) as part of the “Envirotechnical Responses to Pollution Concerns” panel with Hugh Gorman, Ellen Spears, and Scott Knowles on October 28. The panel begins at 2pm.

Johns Hopkins University Press will have copies of the book for sale at the conference. The Press describes my history of sustainable design strategies this way:

Beginning in 1886 with the discovery of how to mass produce aluminum, the book examines the essential part the metal played in early aviation and the world wars, as well as the troubling expansion of aluminum as a material of mass disposal. Recognizing that scrap aluminum was as good as virgin material and much more affordable than newly engineered metal, designers in the postwar era used aluminum to manufacture highly prized artifacts. Zimring takes us on a tour of post-1940s design, examining the use of aluminum in cars, trucks, airplanes, furniture, and musical instruments from 1945 to 2015. 

By viewing upcycling through the lens of one material, Zimring deepens our understanding of the history of recycling in industrial society. He also provides a historical perspective on contemporary sustainable design practices. Along the way, he challenges common assumptions about upcycling’s merits and adds a new dimension to recycling as a form of environmental absolution for the waste-related sins of the modern world. Raising fascinating questions of consumption, environment, and desire,  Upcycling Aluminum is for anyone interested in industrial and environmental history, discard studies, engineering, product design, music history, or antiques.

On Dove and the History of Racist Soap Ads

Dove_2017_soap_adThis week, Dove Soap unveiled a new internet ad. It didn’t go well.

Dove has apologised over an advert which has been labelled racist.

The cosmetic brand faced backlash over a Facebook advert that appeared to show a black woman turning white after washing herself with its product.

Bosses at Dove said they ‘deeply regretted’ the use of the images after they sparked an online race row.

The advert shows a smiling black woman pulling her t-shirt off to reveal a white woman underneath. A third image then shows an Asian woman.

The imagery used in the ad has a long and ugly history. I discuss it at length in chapter four of Clean and White (now available in paperback and audio formats), and I also wrote a brief post about the history of racist soap ads for NYU Press’s From the Square blog in 2015.

Such a message was consistent with the trope that skin darker than white was somehow impure and dirty. Products boasting of absolute purity claimed to be so powerful that they could literally wash away the stain of race.

Why do these images matter as anything beyond century-old relics of America’s racist past? These images proliferated at a time when the rhetoric and imagery of hygiene became conflated with a racial order that made white people pure, and anyone who was not considered white was somehow dirty. The order extended from caricatures to labor markets. Analysis of census data indicates the work of handling waste (be it garbage, scrap metal, laundry, or domestic cleaning) was disproportionately done by people who were not native-born white Americans.

Through World War II, this involved work by African Americans and first- and second-generation immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Southern and Eastern Europe. In the second half of the twentieth century, the burdens of this dirty and dangerous work fell heavier on Hispanic and African-American workers, creating environmental inequalities that endure to this day. They are evident in the conditions that led to the Memphis’s sanitation workers strike in 1968, as well as the residents of Warren County, North Carolina laying down in the street to block bulldozers from developing a hazardous waste landfill in 1982. Environmental inequalities are evident still in environmental justice movements active across the United States in 2015.

Since the end of the Civil War, American sanitation systems, zoning boards, real estate practices, federal, state, and municipal governments, and makers and marketers of cleaning products have all worked with an understanding of hygiene that assumes “white people” are clean, and “nonwhite people” are less than clean. This assumption is fundamental to racist claims of white supremacy, a rhetoric that involves “race pollution,” white purity, and the dangers of nonwhite sexuality as miscegenation. It is also fundamental to broad social and environmental inequalities that emerged after the Civil War and that remain in place in the early twenty-first century. Learning the history of racist attitudes towards hygiene allows us to better understand the roots of present-day inequalities, for the attitudes that shaped those racist soap advertisements remain embedded in our culture.

Clean and White Available As Hardback, Paperback, E-Book, and Audio Book.

Clean and White is now available in the following formats:

Hardback
Paperback
E-Book
Audio Book

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From NYU Press:

When Joe Biden attempted to compliment Barack Obama by calling him “clean and articulate,” he unwittingly tapped into one of the most destructive racial stereotypes in American history. This book tells the history of the corrosive idea that whites are clean and those who are not white are dirty. From the age of Thomas Jefferson to the Memphis Public Workers strike of 1968 through the present day, ideas about race and waste have shaped where people have lived, where people have worked, and how American society’s wastes have been managed.
Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene. In the wake of the civil war, as the nation encountered emancipation, mass immigration, and the growth of an urbanized society, Americans began to conflate the ideas of race and waste. Certain immigrant groups took on waste management labor, such as Jews and scrap metal recycling, fostering connections between the socially marginalized and refuse. Ethnic “purity” was tied to pure cleanliness, and hygiene became a central aspect of white identity.
Carl A. Zimring here draws on historical evidence from statesmen, scholars, sanitarians, novelists, activists, advertisements, and the United States Census of Population to reveal changing constructions of environmental racism. The material consequences of these attitudes endured and expanded through the twentieth century, shaping waste management systems and environmental inequalities that endure into the twenty-first century. Today, the bigoted idea  that non-whites are “dirty” remains deeply ingrained in the national psyche, continuing to shape social and environmental inequalities in the age of Obama.

“[A] valuable history of environmental racism in the United States…Essential reading for those interested in social justice and environmental issues.”-Library Journal

“Zimring shows that American notions of clean environments and healthy landscapes are the products of a racist past.”-Journal of American History

“Offers a significant and startling new perspective on United States history, revealing the many ways in which ideals of cleanliness, notions of environmental propriety, and definitions of whiteness have been interwoven for centuries, to devastating effect. With deft prose and thoroughly researched arguments, Zimring unravels some of the previously overlooked origins of deeply rooted American racism, and in the process shows how these have come to justify economic, social, and political discrimination against people of color. It is an important original analysis, and it brings much needed insight to our ongoing national debate about race and justice.”-Robin Nagle, author of Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York

“[E]nlightening.”-Publishers Weekly

“Zimring offers a clearly written overview of environmental racism in the US.”-Choice Connect

“What an innovative study! In Clean and White, Carl Zimring addresses an age-old critique of racism that posits white as clean and good and black as dirty and bad. In so doing, he elevates the discussion by demonstrating the cultural roots of this nefarious comparison within the context of environmental racism. Those interested in both questions of race and modern environmentalism will benefit from reading this book.”-Martin V. Melosi, author of The Sanitary City

“Traces the always shifting, always intertwined definitions of whiteness and cleanliness from the Civil War to the present day.”-Pacific Standard

“Zimring’s provocative book will compel future historians to take the role of garbage and waste seriously when seeking to explain some of the most pernicious social injustices of our time.”-Indiana Magazine of History

“[A] valuable history of environmental racism in the United States…Essential reading for those interested in social justice and environmental issues.”-Library Journal

“Zimring shows that American notions of clean environments and healthy landscapes are the products of a racist past.”-Journal of American History

Environmental Justice and Human Rights Conference in St. Louis, October 11-12.

StLouisArchMeet me in St. Louis. The theme for Webster University’s annual human rights conference is “Environmental Justice and Human Rights,” and I am joining an array of journalists, activists, and environmental studies and humanities scholars on the program. (See the link above for the full schedule, location, and other details.)

The title of my talk is “The Dirty Work of White Supremacy in the United States after the Civil War: Considering the Historical Context of Modern Environmental Inequalities,” and it is based on my book Clean and White. I may have new paperback copies of the book for sale (cash only).

Since Carolyn Finney and I are two of the speakers, the recent H-Environment roundtable discussion of our recent books could be a good preview of discussions that may emerge. If you are in the St. Louis metro area, come be part of the conversation.

 

Clean and White: Now Available in Paperback

IMG_1395NYU Press has released Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States in paperback. Previously, it has been available as a hardback and as an ebook.

From NYU Press:

When Joe Biden attempted to compliment Barack Obama by calling him “clean and articulate,” he unwittingly tapped into one of the most destructive racial stereotypes in American history. This book tells the history of the corrosive idea that whites are clean and those who are not white are dirty. From the age of Thomas Jefferson to the Memphis Public Workers strike of 1968 through the present day, ideas about race and waste have shaped where people have lived, where people have worked, and how American society’s wastes have been managed.
Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene. In the wake of the civil war, as the nation encountered emancipation, mass immigration, and the growth of an urbanized society, Americans began to conflate the ideas of race and waste. Certain immigrant groups took on waste management labor, such as Jews and scrap metal recycling, fostering connections between the socially marginalized and refuse. Ethnic “purity” was tied to pure cleanliness, and hygiene became a central aspect of white identity.
Carl A. Zimring here draws on historical evidence from statesmen, scholars, sanitarians, novelists, activists, advertisements, and the United States Census of Population to reveal changing constructions of environmental racism. The material consequences of these attitudes endured and expanded through the twentieth century, shaping waste management systems and environmental inequalities that endure into the twenty-first century. Today, the bigoted idea  that non-whites are “dirty” remains deeply ingrained in the national psyche, continuing to shape social and environmental inequalities in the age of Obama.