Strictly Local, Global Province Letter, July 14, 2010

                “All politics is local.” –Tip O’Neill

Round Peak Style.  The strength of North Carolina resides in its small towns, something its best citizens know.  It has a few a major sprawling cities—Charlotte, Raleigh, and Wilmington—but they’re not much to look at, urban but not urbane. As America goes, they are new cities, but they already look tired.  In each case, they dribble out into largish counties with endless subdivisions, part of a culture of land-use that abuses the countryside, lays the groundwork for immense future infrastructure costs, and paves the way for flooding and air pollution.  Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Asheville could be grand and more interesting, but they lack leaders who could truly put them on the map and bring them to fruition.

For places that are still real places, rather than copycat towns confected by developers in the space of a decade, one must get off to North Carolina counties of 50,000 to 75,000 people, where officialdom and homesteaders do not feel compelled to cut down all the trees, and some one-of-a-kind, good spittin’ experiences still come to pass.  Nowhere more so than in Surry County which nestles right up against the Virginia line.  Surry, incidentally, gave birth to its neighbor Stokes County in 1789, which in turn gave us Forsyth County in 1849, home to Winston-Salem.  Surry, with the longest history, harbors the most interesting secrets and the most unique modes of self expression.  Its Pilot Mountain surely is one of North Carolina’s most distinctive landmarks, a remnant of the Sauratown Mountains.

It’s in Surry, around Mount Airy, that one picks up on the Round Peak Style. This is a unique instrumental style which fiddlers the world over know about.  The sparkplug that made local fiddlin’ giants world famous was WPAQ, patched together by Ralph Epperson in 1948.  It is still going strong today, because it found something people wanted and more or less stuck to it. Benton Flippen, who’s also still at it, did flip the switch for the station on the first night with his fiddle. We’re of the opinion that anybody who wants to get to know Benton should first hear his Benton’s Dream.

Even better known is one Tommy Jarrell, who has now passed on to his maker.  Many say that the Mount Airy radio station would not have climbed the charts if Tommy, the central figure in the Round Peak wave, had not had the right sound to put out over the waves.  Tommy traveled around a bit, made a bit of moonshine, worked for the county on the highways, and lapsed into a wonderful musical retirement.  Some of the restlessness entailed in his life is heard in Arkansas Traveller. As we remember he had $100 when he set out to the West to make moonshine, and returned home with only $16 in his pocket.  It takes one man with a strong voice—a local hero—to make a place magically plumb local.  Of course, in Surry County, the voice turns out to be a fiddle fraught with meanings that go beyond mere words.  Mr. Jarrell put a stamp on Surry County.

Plumb Loco.  We belabor Surry County and the Round Peak Style in order to spell out what local is all about.  Recently in Portland, Oregon, a half-baked cook got into a fight with the organizer of a Cochon 555 event.  One Eric Bechard flipped his wig when an Iowa pig won honors in this cooking contest. He wanted the pig to hail from Multnomah County.  With a little alcoholic sauce in his veins, he took on Brady Lowe outside a bar, and police had to enter the fray. Bechard has since moved his own restaurant outside Portland wherein he can pursue his monomanical belief in strictly local ingredients. For him local is about one’s birth certificate:  for others ‘local’ is a way of life.  The ‘local’ craze, in some instances, has been a nutty way to keep out better ideas and better products.

May the gods save us from bad, gnarled local ingredients. There are plenty of mediocre pigs to be found in hamlets across America.  We have yet to find tomatoes in any of the states we live in that hold a candle to those that come from the hot summers and reddish dirt of the great state of New Jersey.  Jersey also produces awfully good strawberries that we have crushed into great ice cream on more than one occasion.  Plain and simple, there are no great national brands, only local huge winners.

Local is not worthy of notice unless it is about fantastic, one-of-a-kind wonderful.  About Tommy Jarrell’s fiddling. Or the sweet lobsters coming out of the cold waters of Maine.  Or about deep red wines burnished by the sun of Spain and Portugal, particularly those from the Douro. They taste of their region, flavorful enough to lend some meaning to terroir, a term used by wine chatterbugs to connote the special characteristics a particular geography bestows on a local wine.  To us, local has no meaning, unless it speaks of a particular excellence that’s to be had nowhere else.  Some of the worst things we’ve ever encountered are too local for words.

Gropius and the Bauhaus.  But under no circumstances should that make us fans of global, mass produced, one-feel-and-one-look products, services, and communities that were so characteristic of the age we are just leaving.  Nowhere is this better seen than in the field of architecture whose practitioners, for a number of years, worshipped the so-called modernist, international style.  A key leader of this movement was Germany’s Walter Gropius whose movement and adherents were termed the Bauhaus. It prided itself on adopting modern industrial methods and materials and on avoiding ornamentation. 

The striking failure of the Bauhaus in both theory and practice confronts the eye at Harvard where he did a bunch of bad dormitories.  Charitably, one critic said that the complex he built, now used by the Law School, was not “one of his better works.”  A recent visitor to one dormitory said upon emerging,  “This is a prison.  This is what a prison would be like, except that it’s part of the law school.” Prince Charles of England, who likes to take on modern architects, would have a field day here.  We understand that students get stuck here who don’t know any better.  This complex was the first modern building on Harvard’s campus, part of its very checkered architectural history.  It in no way measures up to the cluster of successful buildings put up at Yale under the leadership of President Whitney Griswold. Gropius, incidentally, taught at Harvard, moved to Cambridge, and became a U.S. citizen, an industrial architect for a mass-market age. This was an architecture that was especially from nowhere.

Being There.  We have previously said in “Being There”  that having a sense of place and an attachment to the local is vital to our own sense of identity and the pursuit of happiness.  One cannot be a peace with oneself if, as really did happen south of San Francisco, one goes home to a cookie-cutter development, three sheets to the wind, and finds oneself in the wrong bed in the wrong house the following morning.  This was an easy mistake to make because the houses in Daly City were literally identical.  Malvina Reynolds enshrined this awful community in her song “Little Boxes.”  If a man is not from somewhere, but from everywhere, he is simply lost in the cosmos.  The eradication of each man’s special, very local place on earth probably contributes mightily to the epidemic of depression that has afflicted peoples throughout the developed world.

Boutique Economy.  But the need for the truly local goes well beyond our mental estate.  We have said in “The Magic Olive Oil Salon and the Cultivar Economy” that the only hope for a high cost economy such as ours is to build small run, custom, unique products and services that cannot be duplicated in the developing world.  India and China can beat us every time in mass-market items.  Localness of the right sort puts a hallmark or branding, if you like, on products and services.  It keeps competitors at bay. 

For sure, there are lots of great fiddlers in the world, but somehow nobody can quite do the Round Peak Style.  It’s not that we lack for great railroad stations about the planet, but somehow Grand Central Station’s symmetries and Oyster Bar and Food Court and concerts and many platforms have made it a domain apart from all others. Local greatness is the centerpiece of our quest for survival.

P.S.  Benton Flippen and Tommy Jarrell bear much investigation.  For starters, see an interview with Flippen, “Leather Britches.”  You can get a real taste of Jarrell at “Sprout Wings and Fly,” “My Own Fiddle,” and “Shady Grove.”  It’s wonderful that both these gentlemen got more deeply into their true vocation—music—at an age when their contemporaries have been put out to pasture and when they have long since forgotten why they are on this earth.

P.P.S.  We are amazed at just how different the fiddle sounds in different parts of the world.  Wonderful Frankie Gavin of Ireland is never as plaintive as the fellows from North Carolina, a distinction we can grasp in this wonderful duet with Stephane Grappelli.

P.P.P.S.  Heinz is a company that has successfully localized itself, at least in England.  It got started in the UK in the late 19th century, and more than one Brit thinks it’s a British company.  It is best known there for Heinz Beanz, a tomato and beans concoction, that is the local version of baked beans. “Beanz Meanz Heinz” is one of Great Britain’s all-time great advertising slogans.  At its height, when the Heinz family was still in charge of the store, Heinz managers understood the importance of personality, and the warmth radiated in its advertising made it seem eminently local. Its managers often hailed from the countries where it did business.  A couple of decades ago glib management gurus cajoled us to “Think local; Go Global.”  But no, we must instead be ‘glocal’ at all times.

P.P.P.P.S.  Religion once put a local stamp on a region—the Moravians in North Carolina, the Amish in Pennsylvania, the Mormons in Utah, and so on.  But modern life is even draining the sacred and idiosyncratic out of local religious life.  This is to be seen starkly in William Dalyrmple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.  Local gods and sacred places are turning to dust, as mass marketed religion invades every village. It is these which are being eroded as Hinduism’s disparate, overlapping multiplicity of religious practices, cults, myths, festivals and rival deities are slowly being systemized into a relatively centralized nationalist ideology that now increasingly resembles the very difference structures of the three Abrahamic religions.”  This standardization of faith, likewise, is occurring in India’s and Pakistan’s Moslem world as a “textual form of Islam, imported from the Gulf and propagated by the Wahhabis, Deobandis and Tablighis in their madrassas.”  This trend reminds us that the local not only arises from the terroir or local physical environment, but springs as much from the local culture, of which religion is a part. We suspect that formulaic religion, which is not intimately local, eventually fails to satisfy its adherents. One must understand gospel religion in America as an impulse bound up in local roots.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Before Malvina’s red and yellow little boxes came along south of San Francisco, it, as well as southern California, was the nesting ground for a domestic, eminently local architecture that flourished in California’s most progressive era.  We are particularly fond of Bernard Maybeck.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  We actually wish Tip had said, “All politics are local.”

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Until 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, was the largest city in the state and it might have developed into a coastline capital culturally and commercially.  But an insurrection or race riot took place that year, upending the city government, turning North Carolina politics in another direction, and inhibiting the state’s development. Some claim that the local coup d’état was the only successful seizure of its kind in American history. Read more about Wilmington at “Wilmington and its Eats.”

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Spain conquered Holland to win the World Cup, 1-0, in overtime.  Key was that it employed the unusual tactics of Johan Cruyff, a Dutch player and coach now resident in Catalonia. Most of the world plays a defensive game.  He advocates an attack style where each player goes for the big play:  this is what we like to call a distributed-intelligence strategy.  The Dutch used a watered-down version of Cruyff.  As important, we think, is the fact that many of Spain’s players hail from Barcelona, carefully coached to greatness, as opposed to the Real Madrid ethic where Florentino Pérez simply tries to buy himself victory.  Once again, ‘local’ is the right strategy for our age.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  Freud dealt successfully with the inevitable clash of man and his society in Civlization and Its Discontents. What he missed, and did not understand, was the deathly confrontation between lowest common denominator globalism and life’s vital penchant for diversity.




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