The Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed
Elaine Eff (University Press of Mississippi)
This comprehensive history of painted screens will interest folk-art fans and local-history buffs, but it will also appeal to anyone who appreciates the book as an art form. Eff, who has been researching painted screens for nearly 40 years, traces their roots back to 18th-century London and, using sumptuous archival images, documents how (and why) they’ve flourished in Baltimore over the past 100 years. She takes readers into the East Side neighborhoods where screen painting originated, profiles legends such as William Oktavec and Johnny Eck (who was featured in our October issue), and assesses the current state of the art form. And she smartly downplays the kitsch angle, opting instead for a more populist appraisal of the work. This is the rare book that justifies a lifetime’s worth of effort.
Love, Peace, and Soul
Ericka Blount Danois (Backbeat Books)
Before reading this lively account of Soul Train’s founding and subsequent flourishing, it might be tempting to label Don Cornelius “the black Dick Clark.” Cornelius, the show’s creator and nattily attired host, may have replicated the American Bandstand model, but he made it his own. From its meager beginnings in a makeshift Chicago studio, Soul Train, which aired in syndication from 1971 to 2008, grew into an entertainment juggernaut, thanks largely to Cornelius’s street smarts and business acumen. Danois, a Baltimore-based journalist and academic, documents the ascent, simultaneously deconstructing the show’s appeal and dishing backstage dirt with all-access detail. Her overall appraisal of the show as a cultural phenomenon is especially valuable, as it gives Cornelius the credit he deserves. And it makes his fall (Cornelius committed suicide last year) all the more tragic.
Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age
Michael Olesker (The Johns Hopkins University Press)
Olesker, the former Sun columnist, examines a pivotal period in local history and reveals the social and political complexities beneath its veneer of simplicity. He pegs the day President Kennedy was killed, as “the day the Fifties ended,” and, in some respects, that may be true. History seemed to pivot that day, as an age of innocence gave way to 1960s tumult. But things were never so simple, and the societal unrest of the ’60s was fed by decades of systematic disenfranchisement and suppression that belied the country’s placid façade. Olesker wisely uses a variety of local personalities (including Clarence Mitchell Jr., Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and Barry Levinson) to show how the cultural landscape changed significantly in the 1950s and laid the groundwork for the televised revolutions to come.