Overlooked Doc on Amish Resurfaces

Directed by Lucy Walker
77 mins. PG-13, Documentary
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Quick. Who throws the wildest parties in Indiana? If you answered “the Amish,” you were either: (a) being glib and got lucky, or (b) among the very few Americans who know about the doctrine known as rumspiga, which is fascinatingly documented in Devil’s Playground. I don’t know how I missed this ten-year-old documentary first time around, but thanks to Netflix I finally got around to seeing it. It remains relevant; in a tradition-bound society such as the Amish that freezes time in the pre-electrical days of the late 17th century, things don’t change very much.

The entire notion of “Amish Gone Wild” would strike most Americans as an oxymoron, but it’s actually quite consistent with Amish theology. The Amish are part of a Reformation tradition known as Anabaptism.  The ana (against) part of that is adult baptism; that is, Anabaptists believe that only informed adults can have conversion experiences—the decision to join (or not join) the church must be a free will decision. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as being “born” Amish.  At the age of 16, each individual raised in an Amish family is cast adrift and is free to live among the “English” (all non-Amish, no matter their actual ethnic background).  This is the rumspiga, the period of decision-making. There is no set time limit as to when one must decide whether to join Amish society or remain among the English (though most do so within three to five years) and during this period one can do as one wishes. Many Amish-raised adolescents do it all: drugs, booze, premarital sex, smoking, surfing the Internet for porn, wild parties… as if they were first-year college students! An Amish party socks in outsiders from miles around—the music booms (from high-end electronics no less!) and only the hormones flow faster than the booze.

The Devil’s Playground follows several Indiana teens through rumspiga, each keenly aware that a decision to join Amish society means that they must leave behind their current path forever. The film is a piece of documentary anthropology, but it plays like a taut drama. You will find yourself rooting for some of the kids to leave the Amish and others—such as a young man busted for drug-dealing and gang behavior—to save themselves and return to the fold. Most youth do return. One of my critiques of the film is that Walker could have explained better why that decision is made. (We can infer that the ways of the English lose their allure.) Another is that Walker doesn’t explain in much detail how kids with only eight years of education and no visible means of support manage to live among the English at all. But, then again, maybe she couldn’t or shouldn’t. (Once one is in the church, being filmed or even seeing a movie is generally off limits.) Give Walker, as an outsider, props for gaining any sort of access into closed Amish society, and kudos to her film for shedding tiny rays of light on the practice of rumspiga.

If you label yourself as a person who doesn’t like documentaries, do yourself a favor and check this out before you close the book on them. I think you’ll agree that there’s more drama and true emotion in this little gem of a doc than in 99% of the big-budget, no-heart pap emanating from that other closed society in our midst: Hollywood.


New Book Links the Dozens and Rap

This review was originally published in NEPCA Journal and is republished by author permission.

The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama. By Elijah Wald. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-19-989450-3

What do you think of this/What do you think of that/Saw your mama’s picture in the dictionary/Beside the word “fat.”

That little snippet of doggerel is all I recall from childhood battles in which the choice was put up your fists or shoot off your mouth. The rule was that if someone bested you verbally, you weren’t allowed to beat them up. That was good news for a scrawny brat such as I, who was better at quick wit than a fast left hook. When I got to college and read folklorist Roger Abrahams, I learned I had been playing a sanitized white version of the Dozens, an African-American insult duel. I probably picked it up from the black kids at my elementary school.

As Elijah Wald, a Los Angeles-based musician and writer, shows, the Dozens are in lots of places you might not expect. Modified versions show up in the poems of Langston Hughes, the novels of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, and in the black comedy routines of Red Foxx and the white ones of George Carlin. You find the Dozens in the blues repertoires of artists ranging from Jelly Roll Morton and Big Bill Broonzy to Lonnie Johnson and Rudy Ray Moore. And, as Wald’s subtitle suggests, it’s alive and well in contemporary rap and hip-hop.

Lesson one: Don’t assume that surfaces are depth. Remember when Tipper Gore crusaded against obscene music lyrics? She wasn’t the only one. Gangsta rap, in particular, has come under fire for its lascivious language and messages of violence. Gore was right to think that a lot of street prose is painted blue, but she (and other critics) badly misunderstood how rap lyrics function. The surface messages are aggressive, provocative, and salacious, but remember: If you bust a rhyme that can’t be answered and you resort to physical retaliation, you lose. Rappers often defame each other in verse, but these slams seldom result in actual violence.

Wald draws upon the works of anthropologists, folklorists, and music scholars, but he also mines his own extensive knowledge and collection of blues recordings. Adding the latter might well make his book the new standard for studying the Dozens. If it fails on that level, it’s because Wald doubts that one can definitively trace the origins of the Dozens. He suspects it’s a holdover from African traditions, but he’s also aware that his sources have been bowdlerized by both collectors and by community members uncomfortable the content of the Dozens. Wald is on stronger turf when documenting the myriad ways verbal jousting has expressed itself in the African-American community.  Second lesson: Don’t leave this book lying around where young prying eyes can peruse it. The Dozens Wald documents are ribald and raw. One can readily see why the Family Values crowd turns crimson—the imagery is sexually graphic, demeaning, and veers over the edge of a misogynist precipice. But remember lesson one: It’s not meant to be taken literally. The Dozens, whether a schoolyard boast or a rap bust, might be assertions of hyper-masculinity or the cultural coping mechanisms of repressed social groups, but quite often they’re nothing more than a particularly naughty game.

Lesson three: Comedy isn’t pretty. Do the Dozens or rap lyrics make you uncomfortable? Does the answer to that question even matter? Personal views don’t alter the reality of a cultural tradition that’s been around for centuries, whether in the PG-13 versions of childhood bouts such as mine, or in the NC-17 raps of 2 Live Crew. Jay-Z astutely observed that rap shouldn’t be compared to other genres of music because “it’s really most like a sport. Boxing to be exact. The stamina, the one-man army, the combat aspect of it, the ring, the stage…” (185).

Wald’s study has blind spots. He’s open to the charge of being so enamored of the “dirty” Dozens that he sacrifices clever wordplay in favor of the graphic stuff. Folklorists might also take umbrage with eliding the Dozens—which are usually rhymed—with other insult games (snaps, retorts, one-liners). It’s not clear, for example, that “Yo Mama” jokes are truncated versions of the Dozens. (Indeed, I used to steal Groucho Marx zingers if I needed a quick one-and-done snap. Verbal jousts were longer, more complex, and involved more audience engagement.) One also longs for Wald to offer conclusions more substantive than an admission that he isn’t sure why the Dozens have endured. In like fashion, Wald’s downplay of surface content seems overly apologetic in the face of feminist assertions that rap is misogynist. It’s simply hard to ignore that the Dozens often target females and female bodies.

But credit Wald with connecting the dotted notes when it comes to music. If you want to do more than lament the content of hip-hop and rap, you need to learn how to play the Dozens.
Rob Weir 


Jason Myles Goss A Name to Watch For

Radio Dial
Jeswaldo Sounds
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Years ago I heard Jason Myles Goss singing on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and thought he was the proverbial real deal. Hey, when I’m right, I’m right!  Radio Dial, his fourth album, is the sort you’ll spin once and keep on spinning. Folksingers hit the road a lot, and Goss has apparently seen sides of America where hope and despair are flat mates. There are several semiautobiographical songs about dreamers in down-at-the-heels factory towns. That same bittersweet edges appear elsewhere. “Hospital Shirt” is a song abut coming to terms with cancer, one in which plastic tubes drip medicine, prayers, and reality; “New York City,” captures all that is wonderful, tragic, magical, and terrifying about the Big Apple. A real standout is “Bright Lights,” a boxer’s one shot at either glory or obscurity. This superb record is folk that rocks, courtesy of a crisp backing cast on percussion and electric instruments. Goss still has room to grow as a writer—too many repeated words and fillers—but he is a keen observer who isn’t afraid to plumb life’s barbed depths.--Rob Weir

Sample this superb album at: http://jasonmylesgoss.bandcamp.com/