Lori and I had second-row seats in the cozy Alberta Rose Theatre last night as we watched Portland native Clara Baker and her band Five Letter Word knock out an hourlong set during an evening of excellent music and beautiful harmonies.
Clara is a musical prodigy who plays guitar and fiddle, sings and writes songs, and someone we’ve known since she was a baby. (Her brother Marshall, an equally talented musician based in New Orleans, went to preschool with our youngest son, so we’ve known them and their parents, Greg and Rebecca, for almost 30 years.)
It was Clara’s mom and dad who invited us to Friday’s show, just days after they had joined me at a Liz Longley concert on the other side of town while Lori was out of town. And, boy, were we in for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of versatile musicianship and dazzling harmonies. .
Five Letter Word was the opening act in a show headlined by a Portland-area duo, Beth Wood and Ara Lee James, who perform as Stand and Sway and were celebrating the release of a new album.
Between the two bands, we heard folk, Americana and bluegrass and a couple of songs with a hint of gospel, thanks to James’ soulful voice. Each group did an a capella song that was just breathtaking. And when they all took the stage together during a couple of songs, well, it was pretty amazing to see all that female talent on display.
Five Letter Word takes its name from the unlikely fact that all three band members have five letters in their first and last names. In addition to Clara, there’s Leigh Jones on guitar, percussion and vocals and Audra Nemir on upright bass and vocals.
All three are songwriters and the music they produce is truly greater than the sum of their parts. (Check out Willamette Week’s review of their CD, “Siren” here.)
Jones has a striking soprano voice that reminds me of Alison Krauss. Nemir lays down the beat and brings great energy. In fact, she ended the set by climbing on top of her instrument while still playing it.
And Clara? Well, she does it all, and joined Stand and Sway for a song that highlighted her fiddling. She’s toured nationally, most recently in California, as a solo artist as well as in duos and trios, and has released a couple of CDs of her own.
We would have been happy had the evening begun and ended with Five Letter Word. But things went to another level when Beth Wood and Ara James came on out for their own set.
With 20 years of touring and 11 studio albums to her credit, the Texas-raised Wood also is an accomplished songwriter and poet. Her second book of poetry, Ladder to the Light, won the 2019 Oregon Book Awards Readers’ Choice Award — a remarkable achievement in a city full of writers. She plays guitar and piano and sings beautifully.
James, raised in Tennessee, has been singing professionally for over 20 years as a soloist and studio vocalist. If I had closed my eyes, I’d have imagined someone like Annie Lennox or Florence Welch. Together, the two have a lovely sound that’s been described as “gospel-infused folk.”
Oh, and did I mention their lyrics reflect their politics?
The first single they put out together was “Nasty Woman,” titled after the comment Donald Trump made about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. What was intended as a slur became an anthem for the pair and the subject of a video that you can see here.
We left the theatre on a musical high, grateful to know that both of these bands perform locally as well as throughout the Pacific Northwest. With any luck, we’ll see them again. Separately or together, either one will be fine.
Waiting for the streetcar after class last week at Portland State, I came across the above scene in the middle of campus and realized it could be a teachable moment for students in my Media Literacy class. Here is the prompt I gave them:
“Check out the attached photo and think back to our conversation about what elements in a media message tend to attract our attention. With that in mind, what would you say stands out in the photo? Without caption information from me, do you know what’s going on?”
What stands out? The color pink. The heart-shaped cutout for selfies. The gathering of nearly all females, nearly all of them young. The hashtag #pinkoncampus.
What’s going on? It’s a promotional event for Pink, a lingerie and clothing line by Victoria’s Secret targeting young adults and teenagers. Through students who serve as campus reps, the company can give away swag and reap free publicity through social media. Sharing the hashtag on Instagram means you can spread photos of the event with friends who may have missed it and also make them visible to anyone who comes upon the online site. (In the case of Pink, how beneficial is it for the company to have young women publicizing your products from Boise State to Ohio State to Florida, as well as Portland State?)
How does that reach compare to the bulletin board on the first floor of the campus library? It’s overflowing with flyers competing for space and attention, with design elements featuring different colors, typography, symbols and language. In essence, it’s a physical representation of the mass media messages (from news, advertising and entertainment) that assault us every minute of every day. But if you’ve produced one of those flyers, you’ve got to understand its reach is limited to the number of people who just so happen to be in that one building among dozens on a campus serving 30,000 students — and who just so happen to pick your flyer out of all those others above, below and next to it.
Is it any wonder advertisers, marketers, PR firms, news organizations and nonprofits have turned away from static, two-dimensional platforms and turned toward digital images and information, which are timeless, less expensive to produce, and can be shared without limit?
That’s the kind of approach I try to take in teaching Media Literacy, as well as in Media Ethics. Textbooks are great for presenting and explaining basic concepts and principles, but the real world outside the classroom can be a great complement to helping us understand what we come across on our screens. Why do we scroll past some things but pay attention to others? Do we quickly understand what we are reading or viewing? How do we assign meaning? Is it the tone or specific content of a headline or photo? Do we have prior knowledge or experience with the subject or producer of the message? If the topic or source are new to us, how do we know to trust what is in front of us?
I could go on, but that’s the gist of what I am trying to get students to think about.
The fall quarter began on Sept. 30 at PSU and today marks the end of the second week of classes. It’s a good time to look back (just briefly) and look forward to what lies ahead.
This year marks the beginning of my fourth year as an adjunct college insttructor and my first as a full-time faculty member. I’d been splitting my time between PSU and Washington State University Vancouver, but Portland State offered me a one-year contract that allows me to focus my efforts on a single campus. I will teach three classes during the fall, winter and spring terms, including an online class for students who are doing Comm-related internships for academic credit.
I have about 100 students total in my three classes, and one teaching assistant to help me in the largest one, Media Literacy, a 300-level class that can be taken as an elective. In that class of 56 students, about one-third are people of color and one-fourth are foreign-born. They come from Canada, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Pakistan, Mexico, Malyasia, the Philippines and the Czech Republic.
Among the students are speakers of Arabic, Hebrew, German, Spanish, Japanese, Czech and American Sign Language. One student, born in Pakistan but raised in Afghanistan, speaks Dari, Urdu, Hindi, and a little bit of Pashto — oh, and English, too.
Many are the first in their family to attend college and most of them work at least part-time. Some are parents. Some grew up in Portland and its suburbs, others in rural communities scattered across Eastern, Southern or Coastal Oregon. Others are from throughout the West — Washington, Idaho, Alaska, California, Nevada, Arizona.
13 students are Communications majors, 12 are studying business and the rest are scattered across the spectrum — political science, psychology, philosophy, English, economics, graphic design, art history, computer science, sociology, women’s studies and more.
All of these things make for a wonderfully diverse set of perspectives and experiences that enrich our class discussions and enable students to learn from their peers, as well as from me, guest speakers, readings and videos.
I have 35 students in the Media Ethics class — a 400-level class populated entirely by Comm majors who are juniors and seniors. There’s quite a bit of diversity there, too, with racial or ethnic minorities accounting for about one-third of the class.
During my three decades at The Oregonian, I often thought I was privileged to hold two of the best jobs in the newsroom. As recruitment director, I got to travel widely, meet talented prospects and established pros from all over the country, and help recruit many of them to Portland. As Sunday Opinion Editor, I got to work directly with a tremendously talented group of editorial writers, columnists and a cartoonist (hello, Jack Ohman!) and solicit commentary pieces from politicans, professors, business people, community advocates and ordinary citizens on issues of public policy affecting our city, state and region.
But you know what? I’m enjoying this second career every bit, if not more, than my first as a journalist. Adjunct pay is notoriously horrible and the hours required to prepare a syllabus and weekly schedule for each class; assign and grade papers, quizzes and exams; and prepare for and follow up each class meeting are too many to count. But the rewards are so worth it.
I get to share what I know and what I keep learning — often from my students. And I get to feel a measure of pride in seeing them grow before my eyes as they engage with the course content, connect the dots, and express themselves orally and online. Afterwards, it’s gratifying to have so many ask me to be a job reference.
When the academic year ends next June, I will retire. Well, sort of.
I’ve taught a course in London each of the past two summers through PSU’s Education Abroad office, and I have plans to do so again in 2020. Next year, though, it will be a different program in a different city. Details to come.