jenny

The Hum: Jenny Scheinman visits the City of Looms

Robbie, Jenny and Robbie

There’s a brief moment in local fiddler Jenny Scheinman’s movie/concert thing, “Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait,” when we see a man with a hat shot from below. He seems serious at first, like he looking off toward some unknown future. Then he looks down and sees the camera (and with it the cameraman), and that far-away serious look breaks momentarily, and he starts to smile. You’re supposed to smile for the camera. Sometimes you can’t help yourself.

Still from Chapel Hill, N.C., 1939 by H. Lee Waters

The cameraman was one H. Lee Waters (“H” for Herbert, but no one called him that), who ran a photo studio in Lexington, North Carolina (with help from his wife) for over half a century — 1926 on. 

He mostly made a living doing portrait work: weddings, school groups, people at church, shopping, at work, anywhere groups gathered, but as the Depression hit, the luxury nature of photography hurt his business. He had to find find another way to make some money with a camera, and he did, with a movie camera. 

H. Lee used his to make what he called Movies of Local People, focused on exactly that: folks at work, in the street, kids on playgrounds, parades, again, anywhere groups gathered in small towns in the South. The short flicks were shown in movie theaters before the main attraction — usually some Hollywood fare — and he got a small percentage of the take. As a side result the lives of “local people” were captured forever, set in amber for posterity. 

H. Lee’s work lives on. His negatives went to the Davidson County Historical Museum and the movies ended up in the Archive of Documentary Arts | David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Shooting in North Carolina and portions of Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina, Waters produced 252 films across 118 communities. There’s a treasure trove there. 

At some point someone one at Duke burned a DVD of some of the (silent) movies, and gave it to Jenny. She was enchanted and wrote hours of music, matching the feel with Appalachian instruments. Jenny’s friends Robbie Fulks and Robbie Gjersoe, both multi-instrumentalist string players from Chicago, signed on to fill in the musical gaps, again with a timeless Appalachian feel. 

Jenny talks about creating a soundtrack for H. Lee Water’s films.

Finn Taylor, a Berkeley-based filmmaker (think Sundance) was enlisted. He worked with editor Rick Lecompte, and sound designer Trevor Jolly, to turn the raw footage into something new. The project was initially rolled out in 2015 via Duke Performances (like CenterArts, but for Duke University in Durham). What you’d have to call a multi-media event centered on a Carolina town called Kannapolis, once known as “the City of Looms,” home to a textile mill.

Getting off work at the mill.

You may know Cannon for towels, sheets, stuff you’d find at Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, or K-Mart or wherever. They used to make that stuff in company towns like Kannapolis, until 2003 when Cannon went bankrupt and closed the mill. The Cannon label became part of Iconix, “a portfolio of strong global consumer brands across fashion,” etc. alongside Boxer shorts, London FogOcean Pacific and other product lines (plus Peanuts Worldwide, Charles Schultz’ brand). In short, they’re now made in China (or thereabouts), instead of in the U.S. of A. (A YouTube search for “Kannapolis implosion” shows you a huge factory collapsing, and with it, metaphorically, the textile business. 

Returning to Jenny’s musical “Moving Portrait,” it doesn’t exactly touch on current events, and is more interested, at least musically and visually, in the outer edges of America, where the South met the rest of the country, and the old met the new. 

Jenny is originally from Petrolia (where “shift happens”). Her fiddle took her across the country to play post-modern music with the likes of John Zorn and the downtown New York crowd. She’s played in righteous babe Ani DiFranco’s band, made Mischief & Mayhem with guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Jim Black, and bassist Todd Sickafoose, then came home, metaphysically and musically with a more folky record, The Littlest Prisoner (2014).

That was followed by Here on Earth (2017), which draws on the music she wrote for the Kannapolis project. It pulls you deep into the Appalachians, with tunes redolent of Scotch/Irish roots and touches of the blues, familiar yet totally original.

There’s resonator guitar and banjo, a little bit of electric guitar (Bill Frisell plays on the record, and but I’m sure the two Robbies suffice)…

…the only thing missing is the visuals.

I’ve been waiting patiently for her to bring it home, and thanks to gentle prodding from the folks at the Arcata Playhouse, it’s happening, and in a bigger venue, the Arkley Center, on Friday, April 5. There might be a few tickets left on this one-night-only performance. (Or maybe there’s a miracle out there.)

Listen to Lyndsey Battle speak with Jenny Scheinman about the show on KHUM radio.

“These are America’s home movies. They contain a clue to our nature, an imprint of our ancestry. They were shot before Americans had sophisticated understanding of film, and capture truthfulness that one is hard-pressed to find in this day and age now that we are immersed in a world of social media, video and photography. These people can dance. Girls catapult each other off seesaws and teenage boys hang on each other’s arms. Toothless men play resonator guitars on street corners, and toddlers push strollers through empty fields. They remind us of our resilience and of our immense capacity for joy even in the hardest of times.” – Jenny Scheinman

Jenny Scheinman ~ photo by Bob Doran

Event promoter and coordinator David Ferney from the Arcata Playhouse became aware of the project in 2015 when it first premiered at Duke University where is was commissioned. The university originally approached Scheinman with the idea of creating a performance piece with the archival footage of H. Lee Waters. Scheinman enlisted filmmaker Finn Taylor as a collaborator on the final project. Ferney had his eye on the performance film project and spent three years trying to coordinate a Humboldt screening.

“I knew it was special and felt that it needed to be presented in Humboldt.” said Ferney. “I originally approached Merrick McKinlay at the Minor Theatre and we planned to present it there, but we felt the capacity was just too small. Jenny suggested the Arkley and everything fell into place.”

The Minor wanted to stay involved so in addition to being a sponsor, they are providing the projections for the movie. “The Arkley has been great with helping us make it all work. It has really been a coming together of a great team to bring this special project to our Humboldt community.” said Ferney.

About Robbie Fulks and Robbie Gjersoe:

Guitarist and singer/songwriter Robbie Fulks, a mainstay of the Chicago folk scene, has released 10 solo records on the Bloodshot, Geffen, Boondoggle (self produced ), and Yep Roc labels. He’s made multiple appearances on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” “Mountain Stage,” and “World Cafe”, PBS’s Austin City Limits; NBC’s TodayLate Night with Conan O’Brien, and 30 Rock. Film use of his music includes True Blood and My Name Is Earl. From 2004 to 2008 Fulks hosted an hour-long performance/interview program for XM satellite radio, “Robbie’s Secret Country.” His compositions have been covered by Sam Bush, Kelly Hogan, Sally Timms, Rosie Flores, John Cowan, and Old 97s. As an instrumentalist, he has accompanied everyone from the Irish fiddle master Liz Carroll to New Orleans pianist Dr. John.

Robbie Gjersoe is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, songwriter & occasional engineer and producer who has worked on a variety of musical projects wide-ranging in style and content over the last 30 years. He plays guitar, bottleneck slide, resonator, dobro, baritone ukulele, mandolin, nylon string, cavaquinho, viole, 12-string, lap steel, pedal steel, and bass. With Screen Door Music, which he co-created, he has composed and performed soundtracks for many films including Grand Champion, Robbing Peter, and Vanishing Of The Bees. His music was used in the movie The Hot Flashes and the TV show The Mentalist.

About Finn Taylor:

Finn Taylor wrote and directed Dream With The Fishes (Sony Classics), Cherish (Fine Line), The Darwin Awards (Fox and Icon Entertainment) and Unleashed (Level 33 and Voltage Entertainment) and co-wrote Pontia Moon, produced by Paramount Pictures. A three-time Sundance alum and native to the SF Bay Area, his recent feature documentary, Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, premiered at the National Gallery at the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY and is continuing to tour throughout the country through 2019.

His most recent feature film, Unleashed, won six audience awards, at festivals across the country, including MVFF39, and was picked up for US distribution by Level 33 and foreign distribution by Voltage Entertainment. Variety, in its 50th Anniversary edition, selected Finn Taylor for its prestigious list of “The Top 20 Creatives to Watch.”

Jenny writes saying,

“Hello friends! Here we go again – more music and shows! A week from today my movie and live music piece Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait will commence a tour of the west coast. This piece is about community, so I’m especially excited to be finally presenting a hometown gig at The Arkley Center in Eureka!

We will also be bringing ‘Kannapolis’ to The Savannah Music Festival where I will be in residence as a teacher for a full week along with Bryan Sutton, Darrell Scott and Mike Marshall – very much looking forward to that!

In May and June Jenny Scheinman & Allison Miller’s Parlour Game will be in the northeast, midwest and west coast. We have been working really hard to finish our debut album – it is mixed, nearly mastered, and we will be celebrating its official release at Newport Jazz Festival in early August.

Also I wanted to let you know that I will be leading a new string program at Jazz Camp West this summer in beautiful La Honda, CA. The faculty there is extraordinary, and from my friends’ accounts it is a completely transformative experience to attend. Feel free to email me with questions, and please spread the word to string players far and wide. 

Thank all of you so much for listening and staying involved in the arts. 

Love & gratitude,
Jenny

Jenny Scheinman on Tour:
April 4 – La Jolla, CA – Lawrence Family JCC (Kannapolis)
April 5 – Eureka, CA – Playhouse Arts @ The Arkley  (Kannapolis)
April 6 – Corvallis, OR – Oregon State University (Kannapolis)
April 11 – Savannah, GA – Savannah Music Festival (Kannapolis)
May 9 – Brooklyn, NY – Barbes (Parlour Game)
May 10 – Brooklyn, NY – Barbes (Parlour Game) 
May 11 – Baltimore, MD – An Die Musik (Parlour Game)
May 12 – Millheim, PA – Mother’s Day Matinee @ Elk Creek Cafe!(Parlour Game)
May 14 – Durham, NC – Sharp Nine Gallery (Parlour Game)
May 15 – Columbus, OH – The Refectory (Parlour Game)
May 16 – Madison, WI – Art + Literature Laboratory (Parlour Game)
May 17 – Chicago, IL – The Green Mill (Parlour Game)
May 18 – Chicago, IL – The Green Mill (Parlour Game)
May 19 – Cleveland, OH – Nighttown (Parlour Game)
June 4 – Berkeley, CA – The Freight & Salvage (Parlour Game)
June 5 – Healdsburg, CA – Healdsburg Jazz Festival (Parlour Game)
June 7 – San Diego, CA – The Athenaeum (Parlour Game)
June 22-29 – La Honda, CA – Jazz Camp West (Teaching Residency)
August 3 – Newport, RI – Newport Jazz Festival (Parlour Game)
photo by Bob Doran