Celebrating All Things Dieselpunk

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Dyess Colony

"My family was saved by the WPA." - Rosanne Cash

Back in 1934, the Roosevelt Administration established the Dyess Colony in far Eastern Arkansas. It was built on a swamp and covered 16,000 acres. It was to be a small collective meant to pull people out of the Depression. At its height, the Dyess Colony had more than 2,500 residents. The residents were called "representative colonists" and were chosen for their ability to be self-sufficient yet willingness to cooperate. They would share the profits from the crops, the general store and the cannery. They even had their own currency called "doodlum".

Roscoe Phillips, who was born at Dyess 77 years ago, stated in an interview for the Associated Press, "This was a practice in socialism. They took people who had nothing and gave us something. It wouldn't happen today."

The Dyess Colony was continuously under threat. Arkansas Governor Bailey, in 1939, accused the state WPA director Floyd Sharp of opposing him during his election to a second term. That year Bailey and his supporters tried to force an audit the books of Dyess Colony, Inc. Dyess supporters were able to kill the bill through filibuster. However, Bailey wasn’t done. In March 1939, Governor Bailey claiming that the Colony had failed to pay franchise tax to the state, was able to shut down the Dyess Colony, Inc., which left it without legal authority to do business in Arkansas.

According to the official site of the Historic Dyess Colony, "On March 22, 1939, Floyd Sharp set up the Dyess Rural Rehabilitation Corporation as a nonprofit replacement administrator and successor to Dyess Colony, Inc. By this time, the WPA was anxious to end its involvement with Dyess and similar colony projects, and Sharp felt that his own involvement made the Colony a target of the governor. Sharp approached the Little Rock Regional Director of the Farm Security Administration, T. Roy Reid, asking about the possibility of transferring the Dyess Colony to his agency. Reid agreed, and in November 1939 the FSA assumed control of the Dyess Colony Corporation. In 1964, Dyess was incorporated as a municipality governed by a mayor and board of aldermen."

The most famous representative colonist of the Dyess Colony was Johnny Cash. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture,
"1936, the parents of future music legend Johnny Cash settled there. Ray Cash and Carrie Rivers Cash were one of five families selected from Cleveland County. Called "John" by friends and "J. R." in his high school yearbook, young Cash attended Dyess High School, graduating in 1950 as class vice president. He visited the community throughout his career in show business."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Aetherfest 2014

Texas is lucky to be the home of several cool conventions. One of the best is Aetherfest, which takes place in the historic city of San Antonio November 21 - 23. 2014.

The official website for the convention describes itself as:
AetherFest is Texas' premier Retro-Futurist convention, put together by fans for fans. Expect informative and fun panels, interactive workshops, fantastic guests of honor and local participants, diverse musicians and dances, and, of course, the decadent shindigs. We cover everything from literature to film and every possible form of Retro-Futurist media, so join us and your fellow Retro-Fans at AetherFest!

Certainly ‘retro-futuris’ isn’t a term you hear every day. The web site explains this well:
Retro-Futurism explores the themes of tension between past and future, and between the alienating and empowering effects of technology. Primarily reflected in artistic creations and modified technologies that realize the imagined artifacts of its parallel reality, retro-futurism has also manifested in the worlds of fashion, architecture, design, music, literature, film, and video games. From Steampunk to Dieselpunk to Cyberpunk, AetherFest embraces them all!

I’m honored to announce that the organizing committee chose me to as this year’s “Fan Guest of the Year” and I will be participating in several panels. My first panel is Friday night, November 21, ‘A Dieselpunk Primer’.

Come to this fantastic convention, swing by and say ‘Hi’!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Dieselpunk Halloween

This year we’re lucky to have Halloween land on a Friday night. Getting in the spirit (snicker) of the day, here’s a few random thoughts.

Dieselpunk Costumes
Here are a few cool examples of cool dieselpunk costumes that I found online.



Dieselpunk Movies
My good friend and podcast co-host Johnny Dellarocca has correctly pointed out that dieselpunk is a heavily visual medium. Therefore, here are few good dieselpunk horror movies to enjoy.



Cthulhu Mythos
We’re lucky in dieselpunk that we have a fantastic horror literature legacy with the works of H.P. Lovecraft who wrote his spooky stories during the 1920s and 30s. His works can be found in any library or bookstore. In addition to reading his material, you could play the RPG classic Call of Cthulhu.

Creepy Diesel Era Halloween Pictures
Finally, there’s something just creepy about Halloween photos from the Diesel Era.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Going Against the Grain

“To me, punk is about being an individual and going against the grain and standing up and saying ‘This is who I am’.” - Joey Ramone

Recently, the peer-reviewed journal Fashion, Style & Popular Culture (Volume 1, Number 3, 1 August 2014) published an academic paper titled Victorian gear heads and locomotive zealots: Vicarious nostalgia, retro-futurism and anachronisms of Steampunk and Dieselpunk authored by Professor Jessica Strubel of the University of North Texas. According to the summary on the web site:

This article explored the histories of both Steampunk and Dieselpunk with a focus on their dress behaviour and musical preferences as related to the ideologies of these groups. Particular attention was paid to both group’s fixations on nostalgia for periods outside of the individual members’ living memories and how this nostalgia is a feature of their consumption experiences. The article also addresses the anachronistic use of the word ‘punk’ in the name of each of these groups. There is an obvious incongruity with the naming of Steampunk and Dieselpunk because they are shameless consumer cultures with no obvious political inclinations. Although Steampunks and Dieselpunks do share the DIY aesthetic of the traditional punk subculture, their styles have been prefabricated, neatly packaged and made available for sale on any of the many websites devoted to providing the quintessential Victorian or diesel-era garb.

This paper is important for it’s the first published peer reviewed academic paper about dieselpunk. That being said, I have concerns about several key conclusions drawn. I will start with what I consider the three most serious concerns and then address several issues that, while aren’t as serious as the others, still deserve attention.

The Punk Evolutionary Tree

According to Professor Strubel, in dieselpunk “the use of punk is misleading” because the participants in the genre “lack the outrage and nihilism” among other characteristics of the participants of the 70’s Punk subculture. She points out that the 70’s Punk grew from the anger and angst of the working class youth of that time. They saw nothing good in the past and no hope for the future. The 70’s Punks were political dissidents and strongly anti-consumption. Whereas, dieselpunks find a great deal of positive in the past, specifically the period time circa 1920s – 40s (‘Diesel Era’), and strive to combine it with the best of our contemporary society. In doing so, we hope to build a better future.

Of course, the readers of my blog know that the dieselpunk community didn’t choose the punk suffix. ‘Dieselpunk’ was a term created by Lewis Pollack in 2001 for promoting his RPG Children of the Sun.

Professor Strubel’s conclusion that the ‘punk’ suffix is misleading is based on a faulty assumption. Dieselpunk is NOT a descendent of 70’s Punk. The dieselpunk theorist Bernardo Sena (writing under the penname of Mr. Piecraft) laid the idea that it is to rest back in 2009 in issue 5 of the e-zine The Gatehouse Gazette:

"Perhaps it is best to accept that the “punk” suffix added to these literary genres developed not out of the same sense as the punk musical scene, but out of the actual definition of the term. Punk referred to a label given to antagonize anyone who was seen as rebellious or anti-establishment; mostly designated to the younger generation, basically one who would go against the grain of society."

Dieselpunk is a distinct branch of ‘punk’ that happens to share a common linguistic ancestor with 70’s Punk subculture. A good comparison would be in the way that Modern Humans share a common ancestor with the Common Chimpanzee but we’re not descendants of the Chimp.

Punk Evolutionary Tree
Recognizing that dieselpunk is not descended from 70’s Punk prevents the mistake Professor Strubel made in concluding that the use of the word ‘punk’ in dieselpunk is misleading.

Renaissance Rather Than Nostalgia
“Nostalgia is a very complicated subject for me. I'm attracted by nostalgia but I refuse it intellectually.” - Miuccia Prada

In her paper, Professor Strubel explains that nostalgia is a “preference for an idealized past when one was younger or even before birth”. A mistake she makes is stating that the dieselpunk genre exhibits a fixation for nostalgia and that we glorify the Interbellum period as well as gloss over the dark side of the era such as the Great Depression.

I’m certain there are some individual dieselpunks who feel a wistful yearning of nostalgia for the Diesel Era but that’s not the heart of the genre. Tome Wilson, owner of the web site dieselpunks.org, best explains the role of the Diesel Era in dieselpunk:

"A dieselpunk must learn the past, but should be wary not to chain himself to it in the process. We strive to create a future that not only meets the achievements of our grandfathers, but surpasses it with achievements of our own. It is not enough to live in the shadow of another generation; we must find our own path, achieve greatness and inspire others to do the same."

I would add that the organization I’m associated with, North Texas Dieselpunks, often have presentations about the dark events of the time. We’ve had presentations on the Holocaust, the Dust Bowl and racism just to name a few. While at Octopodicon 2013 in Norman, Oklahoma, John Wofford, a co-host with me on the Diesel Powered Podcast, and I gave a presentation on the ‘dark side of dieselpunk’.

Dieselpunk doesn't look at the past with nostalgic eyes but with eyes wide open.

Apolitical and Consumer Cultures
As it states in the abstract, Professor Strubel argues that dieselpunk along with steampunk are “shameless consumer cultures with no obvious political inclinations”, which differs from 70’s Punk.

Strubel is right that the dieselpunk genre lacks the extreme political radicalism of the 70’s Punk subculture. In addition, while I wouldn’t call dieselpunk a "shameless consumer culture", I would agree that dieselpunk doesn’t contain a philosophy of radical anti-consumerism. However, I believe these two criticisms are irrelevant for several reasons.

First, I would go back to the fact that dieselpunk is NOT a descendant of 70’s Punk. Political radicalism and anti-consumerism are not essential elements to the source word.

Second, I would point out that there have been several subcultures that either lacked a radical political position and/or weren't anti-consumerism.

According to historian Joshua Zeitz, the flapper subculture of the 1920s lacked any form of political inclination. Moreover, he documented in his book Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern that the flapper subculture was heavily consumer based and was constantly the target of Madison Ave.

In addition, I can’t help but note the mods subculture of the early 1960s. According to Paul Jobling and David Crowley, though the mods were “fashion-obsessed” they were “never just ‘a passive consumer’ nor someone who merely absorbed his stylistic sources unquestioningly. Rather, the pastiche of mods style was both self-conscious and self-effacing, and it transformed the original object of desire ‘at every level of the mod experience’”. (Graphic Design: Reproduction and Representation Since 1800, Manchester University Press, 1996)

I find it interesting that Strubel references Ralph Lauren and Jean Paul Gaultier's Diesel Era-themed styling as a critique of dieselpunk on page 379. Of course, Ralph Lauren was incorporating Diesel Era fashion into his style back in the 1970s and I honestly doubt he or Gaultier have even heard the word ‘dieselpunk’ much less marketed to us. I would point out that the mods had their own fashion designers with Mary Quant and John Stephen so any involvement by fashion designers isn't relevant.

While dieselpunk differs in many important aspects from the flapper and mods youth subcultures, I think they serve as useful examples as to how the lack of political radicalism/ anti-consumerism in dieselpunk is a non-issue.

Dark Humor and Mobsters
"No one knows what it's like, to be the bad man, to be the sad man, behind blue eyes". - The Who

I was a little surprised when on page 385 I read what appears to be a criticism of dieselpunks.org "celebrating" the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In my opinion, one shouldn’t be shocked to find that a phenomenon such as dieselpunk that prides itself on being dark should find dark humor in the ironic fact that one of the worse mob hits of the 1920s shares the name with a fluffy holiday focused on romance.

In addition, Professor Strubel appears critical of the dieselpunk fashion trend of mobsters, though I don’t recall any cases in which such fashion was encouraged as Professor Strubel stated in her paper. In my opinion, it’s only logical to see the spirit of ‘punk’, in which the root word means 'young hoodlum', in the archetypal Prohibition-era mobster.

An Exaggerated Death
On page 390, in addressing the rise of other genre-punks (Clockpunk, Renpunk, etc…) Professor Strubel wrote, “As the Steampunk and Dieselpunk movements phase out…” I found this statement rather odd since dieselpunk is not only alive and well but also growing. If we use the date of the origin of the word by Pollock as a guide, then we’ve already lasted longer than the 70’s Punk subculture, which began around 1971 with the Creem article by Dave Marsh and ended in 1979 with the death of Sid Vicious. In addition, according to Google Trends, the numbers of searches with the key word ‘dieselpunk’ are five times what they were in 2008 and the numbers are still growing.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of the death of dieselpunk is an exaggeration.

A New Phenomenon
I think that Strubel makes a valid point that dieselpunk doesn't fit the classic youth subculture. I would point out that dieselpunk crosses generational lines. In fact, dieselpunk has a strong appreciation of older generations such as the Greatest Generation of World War Two. This is certainly different from the Baby Boomer slogan of “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Therefore, dieselpunk is certainly not youth oriented.

I don’t know how sociologists should classify dieselpunk. Dieselpunk and the other genre-punks certainly appear to be different phenomenon than we’ve seen in the past.

There is a definite need for an academic study of dieselpunk. Though flawed, this paper by Professor Strubel was a good start. I hope that someday she reexamines our genre from a new perspective.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Swing and Electro-Swing Compilations

One might say that Electro-Swing is the dance music of dieselpunk with its combination of Swing or Jazz and contemporary European dance music. Following are a few You Tube compilations with hours of great music.



Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dieselpunk: Building a Better Future

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald

There’s been a recent controversy about the use of the word contemporary in defining Dieselpunk. Johnny Dellarocca, my co-host on the Diesel Powered Podcast, expressed the opinion that the dictionary definition of the word contemporary should allow works of the Diesel Era to be labeled dieselpunk. The purpose of the post is to explain my position on the proposal.

The word contemporary in the context of defining dieselpunk isn’t necessarily the same as defined by Merriam-Webster. For the purpose of defining dieselpunk, the word contemporary is simply a convenient, shorthand method of saying ‘post-Diesel Era’. The end of the Diesel Era depends on who you talk to. Dates generally vary from 1945, 1950, or 1954 though occasionally one will see 1957. In my opinion, establishing the specific end date isn’t as important as the practice of restricting what we label as ‘dieselpunk’ to production AFTER the Diesel Era, regardless of when one sets the end date. I believe that this limit is essential to the identity of dieselpunk.

Someone once told me that she thought that dieselpunk was a mashup. For those unfamiliar with the term, according to Google a ‘mashup’ is “a mixture or fusion of disparate elements.” Dieselpunk combines the zeitgeist of two very different cultural eras. It combines the iconic elements and Modernity of the 1920s – 40s with the current sensibilities and Postmodernism of today. As a result, a dialectic tension continually exists within dieselpunk, which helps to make it such a dynamic and diverse genre.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” F Scott Fitzgerald

Diesel Era productions cannot meet this requirement of combining the different eras. Even those individuals who were ahead of their time, the cultural milieu that they existed in limited what they could envision. A brief visit to the web site Paleofuture will show how poor predictions of the future have been. For those few who was able to predict the future with some degree of accuracy, the laws during the Diesel Era that regulated fashion, print, cinema, and music made it difficult for them to bring their visions to life. Usually the scope of their success was limited. They were, at best, flashes of light in the darkness of their world.

What should we call these rare visionary Diesel Era productions if they’re not dieselpunk? For the presentations that I give at conventions about the history of dieselpunk, I coined the term ‘proto-dieselpunk’ to distinguish them from actual dieselpunk productions.

There is precedence in other areas for keeping separate the productions of the Diesel Era from the Post-Diesel Era. For example, historians differentiate between the works of Antiquities and those of the Renaissance. I think this is significant because I see a great deal of similarities in the way the Renaissance drew inspiration from Ancient Greece and Rome to how Dieselpunk draws up the Diesel Era. In addition, we also see something similar in the study of Classic Noir and Neo-Noir.

Antiquities are not the same as Renaissance. Classic Noir is not the same as Neo-Noir. Diesel Era is not the same as Dieselpunk.

Dieselpunk is about applying the rich heritage of the Diesel Era to the lessons that we’ve learned with the goal of creating something new and original. Laying claim to the past would be a mistake because Dieselpunk isn’t about living in the past. It’s about drawing upon the past so that we can build a better future.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Your Dieselpunk is Too Small

On a recently episode of the Diesel Powered Podcast, Johnny Dellarocca, at my request, expanded on his post on the podcast Facebook page where he wrote the following:

Hey guys, some here may disagree, but as the "voice of Dieselpunk," the Diesel Powered Podcast has taken Tome Wilson's definition and defined it a little further... To be Dieselpunk there needs to be several key elements:
1) contemporary in origin - from or since the historical Diesel era.
2) decodence - the visual aesthetics of the 20s - 40s (and even the early 50s)
3) sci-fi or alternative technology elements - future tech, magic tech fantasy, etc
4) Punk. This is a counter cultural attitude, not always a physical representation. It is really you the fan expressing your desire to embrace style and culture of another era as a counter statement to contemporary culture.

As I stated on the podcast, I respectfully disagree with Johnny on this. I stand by the traditional definition of dieselpunk that Tome Wilson posted on Dieselpunks.org: “Dieselpunk is an art style that blends the spirit of the 1920s - 1950s with contemporary technology and attitude.” In my opinion, this classic definition allows for more than just science fiction/ fantasy. It also includes neo-noir, anti-heroes, modern sensibilities, and counter-cultural attitudes. These elements are essential to the dieselpunk identity just as much as science fiction and fantasy.

Therefore, I’m writing another post on the definition of dieselpunk. Once more unto the breach, dear friends…

In my opinion, rather than defining dieselpunk “a little further”, Johnny has instead created new definition of dieselpunk. His new definition would read as follows:

“Dieselpunk is a genre of science fiction or fantasy set in, or containing elements of, the 1920s – 40s.”

If this looks familiar, it’s because Merriam-Webster recently defined steampunk as “science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology.” Johnny would therefore define dieselpunk as nothing more than late steampunk and would cause it to lose its distinctiveness. We would simply be exchanging brass for chrome, top hats for fedoras, and steam power for internal combustion. Other than these aesthetic differences, we would be nothing more than steampunks.

As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Let’s look at the ramifications of adopting this new Sci-fi Definition.

Certainly, it’s true that most dieselpunk movies are science fiction, fantasy, horror or alternative history. I don’t deny that fact. The reason for this, in my opinion, is not that dieselpunk is nothing more than science fiction/ fantasy but that science fiction, which is one of several elements of Punk, lends itself easiest for storytelling.

While I still hold that there are dieselpunks movie that are not science fiction/ fantasy, if cinema was the only effect this might not be a major issue. However, the effects go far beyond what movies are included as dieselpunk. It’s in its broad range effect where we see how serious the problem is with the new definition. I will address those dieselpunk movies that aren’t science fiction or fantasy in a future post.

The effects on music by the new Sci-Fi definition would be devastating.

Admittedly, Johnny did agree during the podcast that music posed a challenge for his new definition. John Wofford, another co-host on the podcast, correctly pointed out that some dieselpunk music involves either science fiction or alternative history. Paul Shapera’s The New Albion Radio Hour, A Dieselpunk Opera is an excellent example. We would also get to keep the fantastic dieselpunk band Postmodern Jukebox since Scott Bradlee, the founder and bandleader, describes their music as “an alternate universe of popular song”.

Wofford also commented that Electro-Swing might be considered alternative history. However, I would respectfully disagree and propose that the element in Electro-Swing that makes it dieselpunk is actually decodence and not alternative history.

In my opinion, making science fiction a required element eliminates nearly all dieselpunk music (exceptions being the before mentioned work of Paul Shapera and Postmodern Jukebox). Wolfgang Parker’s Swing Punk is now gone. No more 21st Century Blues of Chris Thomas King. The Swing Ska fusion of Cherry Poppin’ Daddies is out of here. Good-bye to music by the End Times Spasm Band. The Goth Swing of Lee Presson and the Nails is history. Farewell to the 30s Punk of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Adios to the entire Retro-Swing movement played by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Indigo Swing and others.

Are you, the reader, prepared to kick all of that great music out of dieselpunk? I’m not.

Farewell to Most Dieselpunk Music
The newly proposed Sci-fi Definition would eliminate dieselpunk fashion leaving nothing but Cosplay. A man wearing a fedora, three piece suits, and spats is no longer dieselpunk. Now it requires one to dress as the Rocketeer or Captain America. A woman is no longer dieselpunk if she wears a pill box hat and gloves or an evening dress with an Empire waistline. Now she has to dress as Rosie the Riveter or Wonder Woman.

Are we ready to end the existence of dieselpunk fashion? I’m not.

Farewell to Dieselpunk Fashion

So what would the proposed Sci-Fi Definition mean for those of us Lifestylers? By redefining dieselpunk as being nothing more than a genre of science fiction we will all be included in that ugly and unfair stereotype of the geek that we’re all familiar with. In an opinion piece for the Columbia Chronicle, Luke Wilusz described the stereotype as being, “the image of an awkward, socially inept, mouth-breathing basement dweller who has never spoken to a girl and wouldn’t have the slightest idea of what to do if he were given the chance.” 

While the above stereotype is unfair, this is how many people see hardcore fans of science fiction and fantasy. If the new Sci-Fi Definition becomes the accepted norm then society will view Lifestylers like myself, and many of you, in the same unfair stereotype.

There's a New Geek Stereotype in Town: Dieselpunk Lifestyler
Concern About the Classic Definition
Let me address one of the criticisms that Johnny proposes that his new definition solves.

Concern: Doesn’t the Classic Definition open the genre to claiming anything it wants as dieselpunk? Wouldn’t limiting it to science fiction/ fantasy set a needed boundary?

My Response: It’s true that some individuals have criticized dieselpunk as being too broad. This contains some degree of irony when it comes from steampunks since they’re often accused of claiming productions as being steampunk that are not (Doctor Who being the most recent claim of ownership by some steampunks). However, the fact that some dieselpunks go too far with what they claim to be dieselpunk is not the fault of the definition but with the individual’s application. The three components of decodence, contemporary (i.e. post-Diesel Era), and Punk when properly applied provides adequate limits. Let me show how.

1) Decodence – Decodence is that feeling or impression that one gets that says “1920s – 1940s”. It might be explicit such as a storyline set during that period or it might be just the esthetics of the Diesel Era. This helps to fix prior mistakes where some productions were thought incorrectly to be dieselpunk. A Founding Father of dieselpunk, Benardo Sena (“Mr. Piecraft”), made one of the most famous mistakes when he included Mad Max in the landmark article Discovering Dieselpunk (Source: Gatehouse Gazette, Issue 1). I know few dieselpunks who consider the Mad Max movie franchise to be dieselpunk. Decodence limits similar movies from being wrongly included.

2) Contemporary – Contemporary, which in this context is nothing more than short hand for “Post-Diesel Era”, prevents dieselpunks from laying claims to the creations of the Diesel Era. Contemporary sets a time limit on what is and is not dieselpunk.

3) Punk – The attribute of Punk sets an important limit on claiming all current movies with decodence as being dieselpunk. Does it celebrate the anti-hero? Is it neo-noir? Does it contain modern sensibilities? Is it counter-cultural? Does it involve alternative history? Finally, is it science fiction/ fantasy? (Yes, science fiction is punk.) If it doesn’t have at least one of those elements, even if it has decodence and is Post – Diesel Era, it’s not dieselpunk. Punk is the brake that sets the final needed limit.

I hope I’ve made my case well. This isn’t haggling over a minor detail. It’s about the heart and soul of our genre. This new definition would eviscerate dieselpunk. Gone would be most dieselpunk music and all dieselpunk fashion. With dieselpunk as nothing but science fiction, Lifestylers would simply be geeks with fedoras.

Dieselpunk is much grander.