CHING - During my professional development assignment in the academic year
2001/2002, I was able to further my research on the cultural significance of
country music and to conduct valuable research for my next project, The Test
of Time: The Bily Clocks and Provincial Culture.
when I applied for the professional development assignment, I was unaware of the
publicity that my first book, Wrong’s What I Do Best: Hard Country Music
and Contemporary Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), would
receive. Upon publication of this
book, I was invited to speak in several places, including the Live from
Prairie Lights radio show (Iowa City, Iowa), The University of Hawaii, and
the Experience Music Project in Seattle Washington.
Thanks to the professional development assignment, I had the free time to
give these readings and lectures. During
the year, I also wrote an 8000-word essay on country music and the South for the
forthcoming Blackwell Companion to the Literature and Culture of the South
(eds. Richard Gray and Owen Robinson) and a 6000-word article on country rock
and southern rock for Whiteness, Manhood, and Masculinity in the Recent South
(ed. Trent Watts, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
September 11, 2001, I arrived at the Bily Clock Museum in Spillville Iowa, to
start research on The Test of Time: The Bily Clocks and Provincial Culture;
I returned to Memphis as soon as possible and was not able to return to Iowa
until May. In March 2002, however,
I made a trip to the National Watch and Clock Museum and Library in Columbia,
Pennsylvania, where I made a crucial discovery about the Bily brothers’ most
likely source of inspiration. This
museum displayed a massive, highly ornamented clock called “the Engle Clock”
that displayed scenes from American History (Figure 1) as does the Bily’s
“American Pioneer History” clock. The
Engle clock was exhibited around the United States for about 75 years; according
to documents in that library, around 25 such “monumental clocks” were
created and exhibited in the last quarter of the 19th century.
I was very pleased to learn that making and viewing such clocks was a
forgotten form of cultural expression rather than pure eccentricity on the part
of these two sons of Czech immigrants.
I returned to the Bily Clock Museum in May 2002, I spent nearly a week looking
through the Bily’s library and “archives” (i.e., previously untouched
boxes in the museum basement). I was able to discover much useful material.
For example, they subscribed to a wide range of art magazines, including
many that covered New York City gallery openings.
Their angry marginalia to the program of the Winnieshiek County
Agricultural Association’s 1945 annual fair express their disappointment that
no prizes were awarded to the best artwork on display (while, say, prizes were
given to the best pigs and preserves). “No
premium on art” one of the brothers scrawled on the cover–a direct quotation
from the pages listing the art displays. They
also saved photographs of other clockmakers’ work (such as the “Tall Corn
Clock” by an unknown carver in Lake Mills, Iowa) and newspaper clippings about
clock collectors. In short, this
rummaging verified what I had only been able to guess before: the brothers’
ideal was to live as artists participating both in the American art world and in
the farm life of their community. While
the museum curators did not attach much significance to the entry sign that the
Bily’s carved at the entrance of their collection (figure 2), my research
allows me to conclude that their choice of the word art signifies a great deal.
reading I did over the course of the year also taught me to see how time--its
nature, its measurement, and its representation--was of great public concern in
the years the brothers did their carving. Air
travel and automobile ownership changed our experience of velocity, an important
component of time (and the subject of two Bily clocks).
The creation of time zones and the institution of daylight-saving time
sparked great debate about how the prosperity and technological advances of
early-20th century America might be shaping time, an abstraction that had for so
long seemed to be a force of God and nature. In short, while both the events of September 11 and the
apparent obscurity of the Bily Brothers have made it difficult for me to be sure
that my project had significance, upon research and reflection, I can state that
these clocks, like other cultural artifacts, can show us how people make sense
from the shocks of change.