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Ian Stepp

Luaka Bop and the World Psychedelic Classics

Almost 30 years ago, David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) founded a record label “to turn people onto stuff [he] liked.” Because he’s David Byrne, and because he’s eminently cooler than you or me, the stuff he liked was Brazilian pop music.

In January of ‘89 Byrne released his first compilation, Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical. Three other Brazil Classics followed. From there, Luaka Bop–a record label name Byrne nicked off some tea packaging– and along with its eyeballed, “rather obscure Masonic” logo started to jump all over the globe. Cuba, England, India, West Africa, Japan, etc.

I wish I could claim to be a lifetime follower of Luaka Bop, but the truth is I’m a new convert. I hadn’t heard of the label until I stumbled upon the fifth of its World Psychedelic Classics series, Who is William Onyeabor? a year or two back. Read More..

Doc Discussions

I’ll be honest, until this year I had never participated in a book club. In theory, they’re right up my alley. I work at a library. I’ve always worked in bookstores. Reading = good. Discussions = good. But joining a book club can be a little intimidating.

Apart from leaving the comfort of my home, which as a rule I only leave to work or shop for groceries, it’s a time commitment. There are only 24 hours in a day and when eight of those are spent playing video games, time just gets away from you. Who knew?

For those of you in a similar time crunch–legitimate or self imposed–the library is launching our first documentary club, Doc Discussions. It’s as easy as “book” clubs get. Step one: an hour and a half (more or less) commitment to watch one of the best documentaries around. Step two: Come talk about it in an hour long gab sesh at the library. Doesn’t get more efficient than that.

Or does it? Read More..

Don’t Forget the Bootleg Series

There’s no dearth of Bob Dylan’s music. Last year the septuagenarian nobel laureate singing  songwriting extraordinaire released yet another LP. That brings him to a total of 37 studio albums, 58 singles, 11 live “albums”—some of which, like the 32 disc The 1966 Live Recordings defy any conventional definition of the word album—another 31 compilation albums, and a whole mess of collaborations. And that’s not all, as any Dylanologist worth their salt will tell you, don’t forget TheBootleg Series. Read More..

Summer Soundtracks

Ah summer.

Grown-up summer has a lot going against it. The days of three month summer vacation are long gone, and the electricity bill is higher than ever. The humidity leaves your shirt sticking to your back the moment you step outside, and getting into your car will cook you alive. The scent of chlorine is everywhere. But despite it all, I love summertime.

Part of that is the soundtrack.

Every year, starting in the late spring and going right through August, I do a little time travelling. Old friends like Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, and, of course, the “Fab Four” keep me constant company. A couple of classic seventies acts make appearances as well.

Is it the weather? Is it the image of hippy dippy types frolicking in the sun? I don’t know. There’s nothing to stop me from listening to these fellas year round, but for whatever reason they inevitably take over around now. It just makes sense!

Am I alone here? I got a handful of LPL audiophiles to share their summer soundtracks to find out. Read More..

America will be!

Last December, still in a post election funk (that has yet to dissipate) and shifting books, I stumbled across an illustrated copy of a Langston Hughes poem, Let America be America Again. The poem’s title seemed to riff on a now distant campaign slogan (I never imagined I’d miss the 2016 campaign), and it caught my eye.

Let America be America Again is a plea, a lament, and a statement of resolve. The whole poem is well worth reading (seriously, read it), but I want to focus on its opening stanzas in particular:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

No matter your race, party, or creed, the words “America never was America to me” should bother you. They should sting. How many “me[’s]” are represented in that one devastating sentence? What a travesty that words written in 1935 can still ring true for so many today.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day I was spit on for not being white. I was in the seventh grade. As I got off the school bus and it started to pull away, I heard someone hock a loogie above me. Then I was covered in spit. My fellow bus riders were pointing at me and laughing. Two kids I barely knew (the culprits, I assume) were proudly sticking their torsos out of bus windows. One shouted “rice picker” as the bus pulled away. I stood there stunned. I wiped the gunk from my face and hair. Home was a couple blocks away.

Rice picker?

A ridiculous racial epithet that followed me from middle school until I graduated. Just thinking about it makes me feel incredulous. Some days I laugh at the small-mindedness of it all. At the time it only hurt. I felt embarrassed to be myself. I felt unwelcome.

That was my first experience with America being less than what I had been taught.

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I know that in the face of this country’s history of racial injustice my exposure to prejudice doesn’t amount to a drop in the bucket. It doesn’t compare to the myriad struggles that countless Americans have confronted or the disenfranchisement that millions of fellow citizens are made to feel daily.


Let America be America Again
is deeply rooted in that anguish. It is a heartbreaking poem that doesn’t shy away from the exploitative capitalism and institutional racism its author faced. But at the same time it is an inspiring and defiantly hopeful work of literature. Hughes didn’t retreat. He didn’t cower. He recognized his self worth and and waited for a day when his homeland would do the same:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Let’s go back to the beginning. Not to the historical America of 1776 or to some idyllic America that never existed for the majority of us. Let’s go back to the American promise. The American Dream. Back to the city upon a hill. Back to “All men are created equal.” Back to the country that not only welcomed “the homeless, tempest-tossed” but demanded to be given “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” Let’s go back to the beginning and refamiliarize ourselves with those lofty, worthy, admirable ideals. Forget about some nativist, exclusive, reactionary idea of greatness. Let America be herself. Set fear aside, listen to our better angels, “and make America again!”

-Ian Stepp is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library. 

Cover Image credit: Jack Delano

Studio Ghibli’s less celebrated master

When I think of the famous Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, several things come to mind: fantastic worlds, brave young female protagonists, nuanced antagonists, and a certain giant gray bear-rabbit spirit named Totoro. I also think of a man named Hayao Miyazaki.

In large measure Hayao Miyazaki is synonymous with Studio Ghibli. Often referred to (somewhat clumsily) as the “Walt Disney of Japan,” he co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1985 along with three other men, and for the past 30 years he has elevated and expanded the boundaries of Japanese cinema to widespread international recognition. Read More..

2016: Lawrence’s Space Odyssey

It’s been a very space centric year here at LPL. We’ve read The Martian for Read Across Lawrence, listened to astronauts at Liberty Hall, and spoke with the International Space Station via radio! And we’re not done yet.  Read More..

Discography Dilemmas

I never listened to Bob Dylan growing up. I blame it on my parents. It’s not like they banned him from the house. They just weren’t Dylan fans.

In those pre-Napster, pre- job days, it was either the radio or my parents’ music collection: Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits, Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America. There was plenty of the Monkees (my mom never grew out of her girlhood crush on Davy Jones), but not much of the Beatles, and Dylan just wasn’t on the radar. Read More..

July 4th Burger Blues

The Fourth of July was a tough holiday for me. It’s not a lack of patriotism, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s the barbecues. You’d think I’d have gotten used to not eating meat after so long, but man. Just thinking about some nice grilled hamburgers gets me ready to abandon a decade’s worth of vegetarianism.

Some people stop eating meat because they don’t like the taste. I am not one of them. Every now and then I see a commercial on TV for Wendy’s or something and it gets my mouth watering. Wendy’s. Read More..

The library isn’t just for books anymore.

When my wife and I moved to Lawrence last August, one of the first places we visited was the library. It wowed us. We hadn’t yet sold our souls to an internet service provider so we were Netflixless, and LPL’s media collection came to our rescue. The video game collection in particular provided an endless supply of entertainment. I’ve been a gamer (but not a gamer gater) for as long as I can remember, and having free access to hundreds of games at once was a very pleasant surprise. My wallet has never been happier.

At LPL we have quite the game collection. We currently carry games for six systems (Wii, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, Playstation 4, and Xbox One) and try to keep up with all the latest and greatest games out there, which can be pretty intimidating. A couple of decades ago when gaming was just getting started, people would have never guessed just how diverse the medium would become; these days there’s a game for everyone. Let’s take a look:                     Read More..