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Jessica Hernandez's debut album with her band The Deltas is called Secret Evil. (Courtesy of the artist)

Jessica Hernandez: Singing To The Rafters, No Matter The Style

by NPR Staff
Aug 23, 2014

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The new album by Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas has it all. Secret Evil offers a softly strummed rootsy ballad one minute, the oom-pah of Balkan-inspired brass the next, or twangy rockabilly guitars followed by the punch of New Orleans-tinged horns. But in song after song, one thing is consistent: a powerful, undeniable voice.

In an interview with NPR's Scott Simon, Hernandez says she found that voice early, as a kid in Detroit who turned just about everything she saw and heard into a song. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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Inmates from several Alabama state prisons take a math class at J.F. Ingram State Technical College. The campus becomes a medium-security facility when the students arrive. (WBHM)

Budget Cuts Threaten A Unique Alabama Prison Education Program

by Dan Carsen
Aug 23, 2014 (WBHM-FM)

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In a small classroom in Alabama's Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, a dozen women sit at long gray tables. They all wear the same coarse white jumpsuits as a projector shows tips on "responding to anger" and "developing a positive self-concept."

This prompts 34-year-old Tamara Kirkwood to reflect on her past.

"You've got this mentality," Kirkwood says, "and you don't know how to change that way of thinking. You don't know how to get around that. All you know is: 'I don't have, and I need, and this is what's gonna have to be done.' And after so long, you think that's the way life is."

Kirkwood is not alone. The United States locks up people at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world, and some of the country's most overcrowded prisons are in Alabama. Tutwiler Prison is running at almost double capacity and has been under federal investigation for widespread sex abuse by prison guards.

But the inmates at Tutwiler Prison do have access to a unique state-funded education program that offers GEDs and other skills that inmates need after release. The problem is, this program, which would theoretically ease overcrowding, is threatened by budget cuts.

Kirkwood's in for drug charges, but she's taking the new life skills course offered by J.F. Ingram State Technical College. J.F. Ingram provides correctional educational programs and is part of the Alabama Community College System. For decades, it has offered inmates education meant to ease their transitions back into the outside world and reduce recidivism, and recently, it launched a new life skills program. Hank Dasinger, president of J.F. Ingram, initiated the program.

"As I began to think about the people that I knew — including relatives — that have gone sideways with the law, what got them in trouble was not their ability or inability to do a job," Dasinger says. "What got them into a jam was their inability to manage their life."

Dasinger is a former Air Force marksmanship trainer with degrees in education and psychology. He took over this seven-campus prison college two years ago.

One of the students is 43-year-old Robin Myers, who is in Tutwiler Prison on felony DUIs.

"Had I had someone teaching me the things that this program is teaching me 20 years ago, we would not be speaking at this moment," Myers says.

She says she wishes the life skills classes were required for inmates.

"These classes take us step-by-step through thought processes — how we live," Myers says. "So that we can identify the steps where we're going wrong."

The problem is there are only two people teaching this course at Tutwiler. The prison is built to house 400 inmates, although it now holds roughly 700. Instead of getting more money, though, two years ago J.F. Ingram saw its budget slashed more than 12 percent.

"And this year I'm facing another twenty-something-thousand-dollar cut. It makes a huge difference," Dasinger says. "In light of all of the evidence about the effectiveness of correctional education, how in the world do we cut the program that stands the best chance of getting people out of the overcrowded prison and into a situation where they won't come back?"

Republican State Sen. Cam Ward has become a leader on the issue of prison reform in Alabama.

"It's very hard to justify an education program for prisoners, when K through 12 doesn't have enough supplies and materials for their kids to go school," Ward says.

While he points out the current budget realities, he also acknowledges the benefits of prison education.

"Studies have shown that inmates who get involved in the educational component, like J.F. Ingram offers, they are 43 percent less likely to come back into the system again," Ward says. "That's astounding."

There's no hard data on how much J.F. Ingram's courses reduce recidivism, but a national study by the Rand Corporation concludes prison education in general is dramatically effective. Says lead author Lois Davis, "It's a relatively low-cost program that has a huge return in terms of the cost savings."

Ballooning incarceration costs may persuade Alabama's conservative, tough-on-crime politicians to soften up a bit. Some are now talking about sentencing reform and about being "smart on crime."

That gives J.F. Ingram President Hank Dasinger some hope: "I think we're at a crossroads, and I think the nation is going to watch what we do, and are we going to be the Alabama of old or are we going to really open ourselves up to new ways of thinking about a problem?"

Convicted burglar Timothy Brown is thinking about a future outside. He's studying horticulture at another J.F. Ingram campus. Its low brick buildings look like any rural community college, except for the razor wire. He's got a life sentence, but he's hoping for parole.

"I fell in love with organic gardening," Brown says. "And that's the medium I want to try when I get out."

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You're looking at Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. But about 50 feet in front of him is a dude who will not shut up. (Adam Kissick for NPR)

The Good Listener: Can I Ask Loud Talkers At Outdoor Concerts To (Please) Shut Up?

Aug 23, 2014 (WBHM-FM)

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We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the letters informing us that we've won amazing prizes in contests we didn't enter is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on etiquette at outdoor concerts.

Karyl writes via email: "Is it OK to ask incessant loud talkers to stop talking or to talk softly at an outside concert?"

I appreciate the assumption — implied in the wording of your question — that it's OK to politely ask people at indoor shows to pipe down when something's happening on stage. When everyone is confined to an indoor space, conversation in the crowd functions as noise's equivalent of secondhand smoke: The talker's need to be heard is greatly outweighed by everyone else's need to enjoy (and perform) music without disruption. Glad we're on the same page there.

There is nothing wrong with asking a peaceful but disruptive person to please be less disruptive, regardless of the setting. But at outdoor shows, the calculus is more complicated, especially depending on the amount of available space with which you have to work. Yes, a stranger's incessant yapping during a performance can be irksome. But there's also a greater range of options available to you as the aggrieved party, from nonviolent variations on "fight" (shushing, hard staring, issuing polite entreaties to speak more softly, exclaiming phrases the kids nowadays would abbreviate as "STFU") to non-literal variations on "flight" (stepping a few feet away from the conversational blast zone, moving to another area entirely).

Looking over the above menu, the choice that makes the most sense is going to vary wildly depending upon your own spot on the graph where the X axis is marked "tendency to argue" and the Y axis is marked "tendency to avoid conflict." As a relatively conflict-averse sort most of the time, especially where strangers are concerned, I'd be most likely to choose either "moving to another area" or the off-the-menu option of staying put, stewing miserably and composing a passive-aggressive tweet in my head for later.

As for what to say and how to say it, be polite and friendly, stick to "I" statements as much as possible ("I'm having trouble hearing the show..."), and try to be as brief and direct as possible. Speaking a few soft words in pursuit of quietude is no vice.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at or tweet @allsongs.

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This fishing boat draped with sick animals is the signature piece of The Ninth Wave, an exhibit by artist Cai Guo-Qiang that opened at Shanghai's Power Station of Art this month. (NPR)

China's Pollution Crisis Inspires An Unsettling Art Exhibit

Aug 23, 2014 (WBHM-FM)

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Artist Cai Guo-Qiang says much of his work is inspired by environmental conditions in China. This installation, "Head On," which debuted in Berlin in 2006, features wolves leaping into a glass wall and speaks to the dangers of ideology and pack mentality. Some visitors also see parallels to China's chaotic political history. Silent Ink features a waterfall of ink plunging into a 5,300-gallon lake excavated from the museum's floor. It's hard to view the installation for very long, because the smell of the ink becomes overpowering.

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When 16,000 dead pigs floated down a river in Shanghai last year, it inspired a lot of questions about China's environmental conditions and a lot of disgust.

Now, those pigs have helped inspire an arresting exhibit at Shanghai's contemporary art museum, the Power Station of Art.

The solo show, called The Ninth Wave, opened this month and features the work of a top, Chinese contemporary artist, Cai Guo-Qiang. His installations are grand, provocative and unsettling.

They're also popular, bringing in more visitors — over 20,000 so far — than any previous exhibit in the museum's brief history.

The signature work is a full-size fishing boat with a barnacle-encrusted hull that sits in the museum's cavernous atrium. Draped across the gunwales are animals from across the world: tigers, pandas, leopards, even an elephant. They all appear sick.

Some visitors immediately grasp the message.

"I feel Cai Guo-Qiang is trying to show that the survival of animals in the natural environment is like our own survival," says Rachel Wang, a Shanghai art teacher, who brought her 10-year-old son, Jerry, to see the exhibit. "When we run into difficult situations, we all become very helpless."

Another visitor, Chen Xiaomei, a retired manager at a big real estate development company here, is disturbed by what she sees.

"I felt in my heart that these animals are very pitiful," says Chen, 66, who wears pearls and a bright orange blouse. "They are about to die and they cling to Noah's Ark, trying to survive."

Inspired By A Russian Painting

Cai Guo-Qiang says the boat was inspired by a 19th-century Russian painting called The Ninth Wave, which depicts survivors of a shipwreck clinging to a drifting mast as waves crash in the background. Cai says when he was working on the boat, he also thought about last year's tide of dead pigs.

"My feeling was like everyone's," says Cai, who lives in New York and spoke by phone while visiting Beijing. "This was so unacceptable, so many dead pigs floating on the river. It's an outrageous thing."

The animals on the boat aren't real. Cai had a factory make them out of wool and Styrofoam.

He delivered the boat on a barge, which created a striking image as it sailed past Shanghai's gleaming financial district, home to some of the world's tallest buildings.

"Because Shanghai has the Huangpu River, I thought it called out for a boat," says Cai, 56. "In addition, the museum is beside the river, so if I use a boat like Noah's Ark to ship the animals, the feeling is very good. The message of the art work can reach the city and the masses."

The Power Station of Art opened in 2012 and is China's first state-run, contemporary art museum. It's housed inside a converted power plant, which has more than two-and-a-half football fields' worth of exhibition space and resembles London's Tate Modern.

The plant's former smokestack nearly rises to the height of the Washington Monument and has become something of a Shanghai landmark because after dark, it turns into a giant, light-up thermometer.

Huge Installations

Some artists would struggle to fill the museum's huge galleries, but Cai operates on a scale that seems a good fit. One installation, called Silent Ink, features a waterfall of black ink plunging from the ceiling and splattering into a 5,300 gallon lake that's been carved out of the museum floor.

The lake is ringed by mounds of crushed concrete and rebar and looks like a scene from a Chinese landscape painting built with industrial waste. A sign warns that the ink's smell may become overpowering for visitors.

Among Cai's many works here, one stands out as overtly political. It's called Head On, and it features dozens of wolves leaping across a huge room and crashing into a glass wall. The work debuted in Berlin in 2006 and speaks to the dangers of ideology and pack mentality. Some visitors, though, see parallels in China's chaotic political history.

"Some may think this is about the Berlin Wall, but I think it's about problems in China," says Li Hongyu, 40, as he carries his young son in his arms. "It's a reflection of the Cultural Revolution."

The Cultural Revolution was a political nightmare that ran from 1966 to 1976. Whipped up by Mao and his supporters, children informed on their parents and students beat their teachers. An estimated 1 million people died.

Despite the show's tough themes, Li Xu, the museum's deputy director of planning, says the local government didn't object to the content.

"When I accompanied officials to see the exhibition, a lot of them liked it because Chinese public media can no longer avoid discussing environmental problems," says Li. "Look at many newspapers, many magazines, they all discuss pollution and how to control it."

Not everyone immediately grasps the artist's message, though. Back by the fishing boat, a pair of students pose for photos with the animals.

"They're cute!" says Sherry Wan, who's on a return visit from her studies in Canada. "Don't you think so?"

When it's suggested she look a bit closer, Wan's smile fades and she acknowledges that — upon reflection — the animals don't look so good after all.

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Best Lowly Worm Book Ever! cover ( )

Lowly Worm Is Back! Richard Scarry Jr. Brings Dad's Manuscript To Life

by NPR Staff
Aug 23, 2014 (WBHM-FM)

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Richard Scarry's books have been translated into more than 20 languages. This installation, "Head On," which debuted in Berlin in 2006, features wolves leaping into a glass wall and speaks to the dangers of ideology and pack mentality. Some visitors also see parallels to China's chaotic political history. Silent Ink features a waterfall of ink plunging into a 5,300-gallon lake excavated from the museum's floor. It's hard to view the installation for very long, because the smell of the ink becomes overpowering.

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By the age of 5, most of us know the work of Richard Scarry. He wrote and illustrated hundreds of books that introduced children to numbers, letters and What Do People Do All Day.

Through the fantastical and detailed world of Busytown, Scarry taught us what it means to have a job, why we should clean our dishes and how tomatoes at the grocery store are harvested.

Scarry died in 1994, but this month a new Scarry picture book is being published in the U.S. for the first time. Richard Scarry's Best Lowly Worm Book Ever! is part of a long season of re-releasing Scarry's classics to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his best-known book, Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever.

Scarry's son, Richard "Huck" Scarry Jr., is also an artist and illustrator. He tells NPR's Scott Simon that he found the manuscript for Best Lowly Worm Book Ever! in his father's Swiss chalet.

"I looked here and I looked there, and underneath my father's desk I indeed found a rather dusty gray portfolio," he says. "And in there, there were a lot of sketches on tracing paper. So it was basically all sketched out and the text had been written — it was done with my father's typewriter and taped down onto the pages. But he never got around to doing the final art and so that's what I did."

The younger Scarry spoke to Simon about his father's legacy.

Interview Highlights

On how Lowly Worm became a signature character in the elder Scarry's books

He came upon the idea of adding a little character that you'd have to find. And this worm didn't have any name at the time, but then he started getting fan letter from readers who are always looking for this worm and making drawings of the worm, because he's rather easy to draw. And so then my father had to give him a name. And what is a worm? He's lowly. ...

[Lowly Worm] is so optimistic and he can do everything. Just because he has this one foot, he can stretch and he can tie himself into knots and he's very bright and funny and he's just a wonderful character. I love working with him.

On how Lowly Worm is able to kick a ball with just one leg

I have a lot of editors who are also adults and they put too much thought into things. And you have to allow room for imagination and just let things be as they are. And kids understand that Lowly can kick a ball. They don't care that he can't back up and then run forward and kick it, but he kicks it.

On the elder Scarry's detail-rich style

He loved to put a lot of things on the pages so the children would have a lot to look at, and he also wanted the parents to have a good time. And there are little asides here and there, little wacky things that you just pick up on and find amusing somehow. ... Lowly, of course, just has his trunk and one little foot, and so he wears an underpant — he doesn't have underpants. So a child isn't going to get the joke, but an adult will find that amusing.

On playing in his father's studio as a child

I used to spend a lot of time in my father's studio. It was a magical place. It was on the top floor of our house and it was a great place to lie down on the floor with a big sheet of tracing paper, some pencils or magic markers, and draw away. And he would draw his books and I would draw cars and airplanes and soldiers or whatever else a little boy likes to draw.

On what kind of father the elder Scarry was

He was a fabulous father. I miss him. He died in 1994 and he spent a lot of time with me. And we went sailing or skiing. ... We had a coin collection also, and for $1 you could get a whole roll of 100 pennies and we would crack the roll open and spread it out on the table and we would constantly look to fill in the missing spaces in our collectors' book. We had a great time.

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