Author Archives: jimcarrier

Once upon a time, the America’s Cup was homegrown dream

SAILING IN A WHEATFIELD

By Jim Carrier – Cruising World contributing editor

The other day, on a sidewalk outside a thrift store in Madison, Wis., a framed poster propped against the window stopped me in my tracks. It showed a sailboat barreling toward me on a port tack – through a wheat field!
The price was $7.
“I hope you bought it,” laughed Buddy Melges, the venerable sailor, when I called him at his home in Lake Geneva. Melges, it turns out, was at the helm of the boat.

America's Cup 2
The artwork captured beautifully a remarkable and unique sailing adventure in U.S. history – a home-grown Midwestern attempt to win the America’s Cup.
In a year when billionaires battle for the cup with Star-War-ish flying machines on San Francisco Bay, the story of the 1987 “Heart of America Challenge” is a charming if melancholy tale of what sailing competitions used to be.
In 1983, after Australia wrested the cup from the U.S., indignant sailors all over the U.S. mounted campaigns to get it back. Gene Kinney of the Chicago Yacht Club asked Melges to lead an effort, one of seven from the U.S.
Harry Melges, famous for producing inland boats at his family plant in Zenda, Wis., relished challenging not only Australia but also the sailing establishment on both American coasts, who, he once said labeled him, “this hack from the Midwest.”
While lawyers somehow convinced a New York court that Lake Michigan was an “arm of the sea” and could serve as a defender’s turf should they win the cup, Melges pulled together shoestrings to gather a team and raise $6 million to build a new 12-meter boat and get to Australia.
“It was a little bit here, little bit there” Melges remembered. At one point the team was clearing $15,000 a week from T-shirts alone. The largest single gift, $1 million, came from the telephone company MCI Communications.
Leo Burnett, the Chicago advertising firm that created “Marlboro country,” and Pillsbury’s “nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven,” campaigns, came aboard. Art directors John Eding and Ted Bell soon came up with the idea of a sailboat in a wheat field, and hired Chicago illustrator David Beck to create it.
Beck spent a day in a chase boat on Lake Michigan taking pictures of the crew training on a borrowed yacht, and found the drama of tacking through blowing wheat. An original idea of a cove stripe pitchfork was changed to a wheat shaft.
At the yacht club unveiling, “it was like rock star applause – I’d never experienced anything like that,” Beck recalled.  Everyone loved it, with the exception of Gov. Jim Thompson who wanted the boat sailing in corn stalks, Illinois’ leading farm crop. Beck talked him out of it.
The poster was sold for $100, or $500 signed by Melges, skipper Gary Jobson and Beck. They went like hotcakes. Beck was never paid by Burnett, but sold two additional originals to corporate sponsor Ciba-Geigy, and for years received agriculture commissions.
“I did guys standing in wheat fields and corn fields and a plethora of crops,” he said by phone from Cincinnati where he is now a well-known illustrator.
Jobson, who left the campaign to broadcast the 1987 cup for ESPN, calls it the best America’s Cup poster ever done. The campaign was also one of a kind.
“Eight-seven was mostly an amateur contest,” he said. The boats were crewed by nationals, it was the last of the 12-meter yachts in the cup, there were still a couple of wood boats competing against aluminum and glass, and the money was chump change compared to today’s races. Melges went to Australia in 1986 with $3 million in cash and a contingent of 40 people.
“We did a lot of work with the crew, the old Midwestern way, from the ground up,” Melges said. “They were a bunch of kids. We went after guys that had structure, who could get on the handles.”
One who had that “structure” was Larry Mialik of Madison, a tight end for the University of Wisconsin who went on to play pro football. Melges had remembered a radio broadcast in which Mialik had caught a touchdown pass against Ohio State. He called him up.
“I grew up not knowing how to spell yacht,” said Mialik. “Buddy said, ‘meet me in Chicago tomorrow in front of the Chicago Tribune.’ And there was the Heart of America and the governor’s wife with the champagne and a bunch of guys in blue blazers. It was life changing.” Mialik, who earned $70 a week to grind for Melges, became a racing pro.
The 26th America’s Cup, broadcast live to the U.S. for the first time, left Heart of America 8th out of 13 challengers to take on Australia’s Kookaburra III. Jobson said the Midwesterners got better with every race. In the end they lacked $200,000 for a new main and jib for the final round-robin Luis Vuitton series.
“In the end we were one of the four fastest. We just didn’t have enough points,” said Melges, who is now 83. Dennis Connor, whose syndicate Sail America took three boats to Australia, came home with the cup.
Four years later, the world had changed. Melges won the cup for Bill Koch, with a  $62 million budget and staff of 240 people, including eight of his Heart of America crew.
Knowing Buddy’s penchant for colorful quotes, I asked his view of this year’s America’s Cup.
“Before, it was a slow moving program, what sailing was all about: tactics, defending your position, boat handling. It’s a drag race now. Pedal down and go like a raped ape.”

(This piece was published July 16, 2013 in Cruising World’s Web site.)

“An inspiring account…infectious.”

The Librarian and the Banjo2013_missing
USA | 2013 | 57 min | digital projection
documentary | section: Wisconsin’s Own
World Premiere

Sunday April 14, 4:30 p.m.

UW Elvehjem Building

directed by: Jim Carrier
cinematography: Jim Carrier
producer: Jim Carrier
editor: Jim Carrier and Kelley Baker

An inspiring account of both a lost history and its dogged excavator, The Librarian and the Banjo recounts the work of Dena Epstein, a music librarian whose inquiry into a forgotten abolitionist’s diary (at the Wisconsin History Society) sparked an interest in the history of black folk music. Her research over the next twenty-five years ultimately proved that the banjo-long associated with rural white culture in the South-originated in Africa. Epstein’s work not only exploded previously-held views about black folk music and its legitimacy as a subject of academic study, but helped to spark a new generation of African-American string band music. Madison-based director Jim Carrier explores both Epstein’s career and the impact that her work has had amongst music scholars, practitioners, and fans with a clarity and attention to detail worthy of his subject. Folk luminaries like Bela Fleck, Eric Weissberg, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops provide eloquent testimonials, but the film’s true star is Epstein herself. Now ninety-six years old, she continues to exhibit the intelligence, tenacity, and love of her subject that The Librarian and the Banjo chronicles with such infectious enthusiasm.
Director Jim Carrier scheduled to attend.


Matthew Connolly

The Librarian and The Banjo at the Wisconsin Film Festival

I am proud to announce that my documentary, THE LIBRARIAN AND THE BANJO, has been accepted for the Wisconsin Film Festival in April.

The 55-minute film tells the story of Dena Epstein, a music librarian, now 96 years old, who documented that the banjo came from Africa with slaves. Her work shattered myths about the roots of American music, and has been described as “monumental.”

Dena Epstein, front, with the Carolina Chocolate Drops in October 2009

Dena Epstein, front, with the Carolina Chocolate Drops in October 2009

The film features interviews with Dena (as everyone calls her), academics, banjo historians and musicians including the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka and Eric Weissberg. The soundtrack, from dozens of banjo players, includes music on gourd akontings, minstrel instruments and bluegrass banjos.

 

The Librarian at the Banjo Institute

Below is a huge (4-foot long) photo of the famous Tennessee Banjo Institute, held in 1992, at which Dena Epstein lectured. She recalls being one of the few people without a banjo in their hands.

Here is a photo closeup of her behind John Hartford.

Dena Epstein behind John Hartford at TBI 1992.

Dena’s work inspired the TBI, which brought together the whole world of banjoists, including, for the first time, African pluked lute players, minstrel historians and the hottest bluegrass pickers from Nashville. Dena is the subject of my film THE LIBRARIAN AND THE BANJO.

Here is a link to the panoramic photo. When it opens, click to zoom in.

Tunisia-Italy-US

I’m home after two months, sailing Ranger from Tunisia to Italy. Here is a map of our journey. Thanks to crew Wally Wallace, Amy Carrier and Dave Pfautz for the 1,000-mile journey. We left Hammamet March 15, and arrived in Genoa April 27. Ranger was sailed into a Dockwise freighter May 6, and arrived in Fort Lauderdale May 23. You can read about the voyage here. She is now in dry dock west of Okeechobee.

The Librarian and The Banjo

Columnist Doug Moe of the Wisconsin State Journal today outlined my new film: THE LIBRARIAN AND THE BANJO.

The documentary will star Dena Epstein, a music librarian who unearthed evidence that the banjo came from Africa, and helped lay the groundwork for the black string band revival. She turns 95 next month! Long Live Dena.

Jim Carrier with Dena Epstein in February 2009 (John Giannini)

 

 

Honor Freedom’s Path with World Heritage designation

The metaphor behind the design of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is lost on no one in the remote and ordinary spots
where the civil rights movement unfolded.

“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of a mountain of despair a stone of hope,” King said in his 1963 “I Have a Dream”
speech.

Across the South, a half-century of difficult hewing has produced dozens of memorials at the still highly charged scenes of
murders, marches and triumphs. Among them, bus stops, lunch counters, a bridge and schools.

The first black president could shine a spotlight on this string of human rights pearls by securing U.N. World Heritage designation
for the civil rights movement.

When I moved to Alabama in 1999, most civil rights sites were unmarked, and many had been destroyed. Tourism offices and historical groups, out of racism and guilt, refused to embrace this great gift to the world. Rosa Parks, for example, had to share a
street sign with Hank Williams.

That has changed enormously. Now, in Montgomery, there are two Rosa Parks museums – one for children with a Disney-like “ride”
back to the 1950s – a city-sponsored civil rights trail, and new museums dedicated to Freedom Riders and the 1965 voting rights
march.

Clockwise from top left: The Alabama Capitol with Dexter Avenue Church at right; the Bryant's Grocery marker in Mississippi; the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the "Bloody Sunday" conflict on March 7, 1965; the Rosa Parks Museum; Inset: the back panel of the Bryant's Grocery marker.

In 2008, Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, where King used to preach, along with two African American churches in Birmingham (Bethel Baptist and 16th Street Baptist) were recognized by the Interior Department as worthy of world heritage status as sites key to the civil rights movement. They were put on a “tentative list” for eventual nomination as cultural icons that
“had a profound influence on human rights movements elsewhere in the world, particularly regarding nonviolent social change.”

But the National Park Service will need to add more movement sites to win UNESCO’s exacting approval, a process that would
take staff time and money, according to Stephen Morris, chief of international affairs at the National Park Service.

Chiseling new narratives into southern stone is a difficult task. The South is shadowed by the Civil War, arguments over who
owns history and cynicism at turning human rights tales into tourist trails. But such hewing has led to reconciliation, the
airing of centuries-old grievances and an integration of history that, until recently, was as “Jim Crowed” as water fountains
were in the 1960s.

Case in point: Money, Miss., a dried-up spot in the Delta between the old Yazoo & Mississippi Valley rail line and the turgid
Tallahatchie River, infamous for being the site of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till on Aug. 21, 1955. I consider it the
most haunted of Mississippi civil rights sites, the crumbling bricks of Bryant’s Store a palpable reminder of the isolation
and fear that surrounded blacks.

On May 18, the state of Mississippi, with Gov. Haley Barbour’s support, erected in front of the store a historical marker
that describes Till’s death and significance. It includes a quote from Rosa Parks recalling her action four months after:
“I thought of Emmett Till, and when the bus driver ordered me to move to the back and I just couldn’t move.” When Till’s cousin
Wheeler Parker said to the dedication crowd, “This is the spot where we were when we came out of that store,” even tourism
officials felt a chill, recalled Ward Emling, Mississippi’s manager of film and cultural heritage, in an interview.

Few realized that as the ceremony took place, another small drama was playing out. The store is now owned by the grandchildren
of one of the jurors who acquitted Till’s murderers – men who later confessed in Look magazine. The juror and his all-white
companions are pictured on the marker. Yet his granddaughter cooperated in finding a spot for the marker, vetted its content
and advocated for it within her family, according to the marker’s designer, Allan Hammons. “For them to become advocates,
letting go and doing the right thing is a powerful statement,” he told me.

The Till marker was the first of 25 markers to be erected on a “Mississippi Freedom Trail” – this in a state notorious for
more lynchings (more than 500 between 1890 and 1950) and more civil rights murders (40 between 1954 and 1968) than any other
state Their sacrifice eventually led to the election of 800 black people to public office.

The trail was the third major civil rights initiative taken by the state in the past half-year. In December, Mississippi became
the first state in the nation to require a civil rights curriculum in kindergarten through 12th grade. In January, Barbour
pushed through the legislature $15 million as seed money for a Mississippi civil rights museum – a move widely linked to his
presidential aspirations but one that will lead to the first state-run, statewide civil rights museum in the United States.

Mississippi’s consequential efforts are precisely the kind of story deserving of world heritage designation.

This oped was published in the Washington Post Sunday Opinion page Aug. 28, 2011.