Monday, May 31, 2010
Judy and I went on a walk in the afternoon yesterday. Right away I found this tree trunk with bark I didn't recognize. I looked up at the leaves, way up there, and they seemed to favor wild cherry. Wild cherry bark makes patterns similar to this, but it's also very different. And beside it was a another tree I didn't recognize as native. It could also be that it's been so many years since I've spent time in the forest I've forgotten much, so much that everything looks brand new. It's like I've seen it all before, and it's fresh and new at once.
I like spending time with my friends. Lucas and Judy are my friends individually. It took a little while, in years, to get used to Judy, a Brooklyn Yankee, just cultural characteristics, the like of which she had to get used to with me, a Reb, and Lucas, also a Reb. Her Brooklyn accent made her an outsider in the South. They settled at Conyers, GA, east of Atlanta on I-20, and Judy has been in the public school system all the way along. She taught 8th grade for several years, burned out and took up counseling, which she's been comfortable with ever since. She intended to wait a couple years, but the administration at the school has changed, reverse racism is the standard and they want her out as much as she wants out. Wrong skin color. In Judy's experience of the South, she's assimilated well and gets along well. In herself, she feels neither Yankee nor Southern, just herself. The Civil War is no issue for her.
The Civil War is a very big issue for Lucas. He's read about it all his life, has shelves of books about it and picture books of b&w photographs. I happened to see the Civil War movie, GLORY, before he did. His first question when I mentioned it was, "How did they depict the Southern army?" I said, "Redneck farm boys." He said, "That's what they were." Lucas's other war fascination is VietNam. He has a lot of shelves of books about the war, picture books, fiction, the works. He went to a University in Belgium for a semester to teach a course on the fiction of the VietNam War. I believe he taught such a course at Oxford U in England, as well. He has taught the course at Emory too. His interest in the war has largely been inspired by his year of "duty" there. I don't believe he had any truly traumatic experiences, office work mostly. He didn't come home with post-traumatic stress, or if he did, I never noticed. Like me, his post-traumatic stress is with him all his life, the stress of growing up in the same house with a parent who came home from WW2 with it.
Lucas has done equally extensive reading in philosophy, literary criticism such as deconstruction and the other things they write about. Every once in awhile in extended conversation he will outline a line of development in a particular branch of lit crit and I love it. You might say he understands what he reads. He's a true intellectual in the real meaning of the word. He's not what Nixon and Agnew called an "effete intellectual," though they would have called him that. He and Judy were of a way of seeing that Ronald McDonald Reagan made into a bad word, "liberal," all of it coming to mean there is no place in the Republican Party for Lucas Carpenter. He thinks too much. He pays attention. He aint one of them, though he already knew it. He's not somebody those people fool easily, so they call him an effete intellectual and his voice is neutered by stupid politicians. Lucas is a Noam Chomsky kind of character who can read history and current events and see patterns of human behavior running through them, sees the propaganda for what it is. He's not fooled by shyster politicians, ever.
Lucas is not the kind of intellect to lose touch with his own humanity. He enjoys all kinds of people, likes knowing a wide variety of people, never holds himself higher than anyone just because he reads a lot, never talks down to anyone, ever, for any reason. And he's a popular professor, personable with the kids, actually appreciates them individually, just turned down an offer to be a Dean, because he'd rather work with the students face to face, the old-time way. He's about teaching, not administration. By now so many generation gaps have gone by that he feels in a foreign country with MP3s, iPods, iPads, kindel, blackberry, twitter. He doesn't get any of it and doesn't want to. But probably will. Like going from LPs to cassettes to CDs to downloads. Lucas would rather read a book. He golfed until a real estate developer bought the golf course and made a subdivision of it.
We were Dylan fans all the way along, included with us Lucas's sister, Jeanette, and her husband, Ty, in Atlanta, Norcross. They went to UGa in Athens. Ty became an advertising photographer and Jeanette teaches in a school for kids new here from other countries to help them with English at the same time they teach them so they can understand. Something along that line. I know she'd ammend that quite a bit, but might agree it's uneducatedly close. Like it missed, but it was close. When we were all much younger, before their kids were born, I forget how we all managed to come together for Dylan's first concert tour in Atlanta in whatever year that was, and the 5 of us went to the concert together. We had a ball. We were all such Dylan fans it was like a bonding event for all of us. To this day it rates at the top of the list of concerts each one of us has seen, before or since.
Lucas and Judy and I talked a good bit of Dylan this weekend, exclamations of how his most recent albums are the best ever. He started out making great albums, continued to all along the way. It was like he started at the top and got better and better. His last 2 albums are like beyond anything I've ever heard. Every song he writes, every song he sings is done with authority. Dylan is a phenomenon we have watched evolve and each of us appreciating him for our own reasons. Back when Lucas and I were at College of Charleston we talked meaning it that Dylan is rare as a Shakespeare, a Mozart, a Michaelangelo. We talked that way among ourselves. It didn't do to talk it too loud around people who don't listen to Dylan. I hold Dylan as one of the great artists of the 20th century with Brancusi, Duchamp, Rauschenberg. A poet the likes of Rimbaud. We always like to talk about Dylan and hear his music. Not exclusively, by any means. We sit on the deck with glasses of wine looking at the trees and sky, music playing inside the house behind us, every kind of music.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
Judy is laughing because she's retired. 2 more days of work next week and she's free to write the book she's been wanting to write, whatever that is. Like for a lot of people, after a long career in the school system, everything changes around you and 30 years later it's not like it was before in hardly any way. The kids are different, the teachers are different, society all around us is different. There comes a time you're in foreign territory without going anywhere. She's been there quite awhile. She has a daughter working on a PhD in molecular biology at Berkeley, happily married to a guy working on his PhD in Chemistry. All of that makes for a mom satisfied that her girl made it through that period of the teens when a kid can go off in any direction. It's fulfilling for a mom to see her fledgling fly on her own.
Judy and Lucas are here from Georgia for the weekend. They'd like to stay longer, but Judy has to be back Tuesday and Wednesday to retire. Lucas would be retiring too, but the "economic downturn" stripped Emory faculty of their retirement. So he has to go on working. And he's at a place, too, where the world has changed under him and he's something akin to a stranger in a strange land. Teaching doesn't convince him any more that he's contributing anything of value to anyone. The school system has changed and the students have changed from year to year. Very little is familiar any more except the tedium of doing something you don't believe in any more. It's hard to let go of believing you're doing any good when you don't connect any more. I knew he'd given up trying when he told me a few years ago, "When I see a kid with a ballcap on backwards, I know he has nothing to say I want to hear." He said it for an example of how far he has allowed himself to separate from the tolerance he used to hold high. He knows what he said has to say about him. He tries not to be a boring old curmudgeon professor, and I know for a certainty he is not, but I believe there are times he'd like to let go and lose interest in the kids. That's his flaw, he can't let go of his interest in the education of the various young people in his classes.
Friday, May 28, 2010
Another drive to Woodlawn to hear Bobby Patterson and Willard Gayheart make music together. I was one of 5 that showed up for the show. They still made good music. They have made music together for over 40 years. Not all the time. Both good singers and both master musicians. I never mind driving an hour to get to Woodlawn for the good music. It's a chance each Friday night to hear master musicians sit and jam a couple hours for a few people. I like the casual air of the place, the casual air of the musicians playing as they play. They don't put on the dog, just make good music and sing good songs.
Bobby Patterson was the featured guest tonight. Bobby is somebody almost only known by other musicians. He has a recording studio and a label, HERITAGE RECORDS, where he records bands of SW Virginia largely. Some of his bands have been early Whitetop Mountain Band, Shady Mountain Ramblers, Rock Mountain Ramblers, Otis Burris, New Ballards Branch Bog Trotters, Laurel Fork Travelers, Bell Spur String Band, and a lot more. I think Bobby is a state treasure in SW Virginia. He records the Galax fiddlers convention every year and puts selections on a cd for every year. Bobby has made recordings of and has been a living part of the music world in SW Virginia all his life. His dad was a fiddler. Bobby started playing guitar when he was 8. Later, he took up the banjo. He plays mandolin with the band The Highlanders. Willard plays rhythm guitar and sings with the band. Bobby plays rhythm guitar with Tommy Jarrell on fiddle, Kyle Creed banjo and Loraine Linebury playing bass, JUNE APPLE, the finest old-time album ever. Bell Spur String Band is right up there too.
Between songs, Bobby talked of his life in the music of these mountains. He knows this music inside out. I like hearing Bobby talk. I like talking with him at his store, the Heritage Record Shoppe. He loves mountain music. Back when Joan Baez was making hits of old songs and Bob Dylan was activated by the old music too. I was in Wichita, not long out of high school, reading or hearing someplace that they listened to the Carter Family, like the Carter Family was real authenticity whereas Baez was pretend authenticity. I'll bet I saw that in Playboy magazine. That's what comes to mind of my first awareness of the Carter Family, the taproot of roots, must be important. Never heard Carter Family. Heard the name not very often, curious about who and what they were, but not enough to commit to research or just plain search. Finally, when I did hear the Carter Family, I had lived in their culture, mountain culture, quite a long time. They were not folksy and different. Maybelle played a guitar you could flatfoot or square-dance to, and the autoharp is more audible as an enchanting enhancement of the guitar. The Carter Family has drive. They recorded the encyclopedia of mountain music.
At moments like tonight hearing Bobby and Willard I'm in awe of the Southern Appalachian tradition in music. I feel more fortunate than ever that my parachute landed me in the midst of such a rich culture. It strikes me funny that people coming into the mountains are dismayed by absence of culture. But down deep inside the world of the mountain people there is much culture. It may not be the same kind as "out there," but it's every bit as valid. The Arts Council in Sparta brings the NC Pops Symphony from Raleigh to play for the High Meadows women. Shit fire! Would they pay Whitetop Mountain Band to play for the same amount of time? 101 strings of Beatles hits strikes me as about the same where culture is concerned as the Wayne Newton show in Las Vegas. When Whitetop Mountain Band is playing one place and a pops symphony playing someplace else at the same time, it wouldn't even be a decision for me which one to go to. I have never liked pop tunes played by orchestras. Gershwin is right there at the line, sometimes over the line into pop. That's just my purist side, which I claim most of the time not to have. I like to hear myself say I am not a purist, but I fool myself. I know being a purist is lopsided, out of balance, but when it comes to bluegrass, I don't want nugrass rock musicians messing it up. It's just changes. Bluegrass, itself was a change, was new in its time.
I like the music the way Bobby and Willard make it. They're casual, but that doesn't mean their fingers aren't busy. Willard is a rhythm picker, not a strummer. Bobby has a loping Southern roll in his bluegass picking that is flawless and smooth. Whatever they do, music is what happens. They set the music in motion from the start. I love living in a place where every weekend and often during the week music is played for the fun of making music.
I stopped by the Jubilee in Sparta on the way back. I left Woodlawn an hour early to hear Lucas Pasley's band of school kids who learned their music through JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) called BORDERLINE. They were auctioning cakes, raising money for something to do with Rotary, to get money for polio to be matched by Bill Gates. Ah, Bill Gates, the man whose name means money. I listened to the band play 3 songs. And I went out the door. My friends, Lucas and Judy Carpenter were arriving here from Georgia ETA 9:30. I had too much to do at the same time in different places. I walked through all of it. It was handled comfortably. One flowed into the next. I lived through it all. I like the drive from here to Woodlawn and back. It's a good drive to go on with the car, like walking with a dog. Most of the time the radio is off. I'd rather pay attention to what's going on in my head than have distractions running all the time. The road is a good place to let the mind run free working out this and that. When I don't have a conundrum to chew on the road, then I'll play music. Sometimes, the mind is quiet and I don't want any noise, just want to let the mind enjoy some quiet for a few minutes.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Tonight was the 2nd part of Lucas Pasley's 2-part talk on old-time mountain music specific to this county, this region. He held my attention every word. He held the whole audience's attention as closely as he held mine. His years of teaching experience gave him the right voice for a room that size with that many people, about the size of a class. I appreciated that he disclaimed for himself as not a folklorist. He's written no books, has no degrees in anything to do with mountain music. I felt like that ran his credibility up a notch or 2. He's talking as a mountain fiddler who has learned from other mountain fiddlers, not as a scholar who read books about it.
He told about the sudden interest around 1750 in fiddle music. Before, violins were made by serious artisans. Violins were expensive. The factory-made violin made them available to the working people where they became fiddles. Lucas addressed the likelihood that young men took up the fiddle to attract babes. It motivates rock musicians. He talked about the excitement of the times, finding Cumberland Gap, the passage through the mountains, otherwise difficult to cross. He talked about how old time music varies from region to region throughout the Southern mountains. He talked of the blues influence on old-time, pointing out the sudden run of fiddle tunes called blues; Lee Highway Blues, White House Blues, Lonesome Road Blues. Then he played on the fiddle Florida Blues.
The audience was an interesting mix of people, like what you see at the Blue Ridge Music Center concerts on the Parkway. There, you see about half mountain people and half people from other places. I've found a lot of audiences at music shows are about half and half, like the local population now. Tonight I saw several people from the mountains. And several who had lived here a long time, many who were new, curious about mountain music. I'd say about everyone there went away from it believing they understood something about the music. I found it predictable that no one was there from the newspaper. It didn't bleed, so it sure as fire doesn't lead. It didn't have anything to do with the hospital or the schools. It was a significant moment in the history of the county, as was Part 1 that Lucas presented last month. The county is beginning to take an interest in itself, now that the old ways are gone. The music continues into our time. It didn't bleed, so it's not news. You can bet the demolition derby was noticed by the local paper. If someone was actually there from the paper, I apologize in advance for my rant. If not, I don't apologize.
It was a very comfortable crowd in that everyone there was wanting to hear what Lucas had to say. The first talk, no word was around much, nobody much knew what it would be. That time had been the first one to advertise it to everyone who had been there. The library had put a visible ad in the paper this week telling about the talk. I take it for a marvelous event that we have in the county a fiddler in the tradition who has studied the styles of different fiddlers from our county and played old-time fiddle tunes in their different styles. Lucas's talks are significant in the county's history because they are flashing arrows pointing to this county's musical heritage that is significant and quite remarkable. It seemed like the varieties of people gathered to hear Lucas talk were some with historical interest, some with musical interest, some with cultural interest, to hear about the new music that was the exciting new music of the first couple centuries of our country, meaning old-time was the pop music before electricity. Now it's roots music.
Lucas explained how the Southern style of fiddling had strong influence from black ways of playing, even Indian ways of playing, and noting as an aside that slavery and racism were not all that was going on in the South. Northern old-time music did not have the black influence. It's the mix of anlgo music with black music that sets Southern music apart. Right on up to and through the Allman Brothers, Skynnard, Marshall Tucker Band, REM. I don't keep up with what's going on in rock any more, so I can't say anything about what Southern rock is about now except Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. It's changing too fast and there's too much going on. It's like rock is in a melting pot now, everything that's ever been done in rock heretofore thrown in a blender and coming out in new, different ways, some the same as before, some new. Too many too fast. Kids who want to be rock stars really bad. I like about now in pop music that everything goes. Same as in international art. Everything goes. Boiling, boiling. All the parts that were in place in the traditions of the world swirling around in the boiling mass of parts. The heat turns down and the boiling ceases, the parts settle, this time in a whole new arrangement.
It was a happy crowd to be in this evening. We were however many different individuals, entirely different world views from one to the next, different experiences altogether, varying degrees of familiarity with mountain culture, an interesting spectrum of people. Lucas's grandmother, his dad, his wife, his 3 kids, his aunts, family support was there to hear him like everybody else. I do believe everybody got something out of it they regard important. Different points for different people, but I felt like everyone was enjoying it as much as I was, each for their own reasons. Lucas gave us a lot to digest. I certainly came away with some insights of my own. When the talk was over, it seemed like the audience swarmed around Lucas, people talking with people next to them, the whole place in instantaneous conversation about what they'd just heard. It was like everyone was inspired and light hearted. Lucas brought old-time music to life tonight, opening up new ways to see it besides just "roots" music. He brought it home and he really did bring it to life for the people present. Like his first talk of the 2, I felt like this one, too, is a moment in the county's history worthy of notice.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Driving up Wolf Branch Road, and if you know the road you know what I mean by up, at the top I saw this great panorama of this section of Pine Swamp. Pulled off the road to get this picture of such a great cloud display, benevolent clouds with neither rain nor lightning in them, clouds that filter the sunlight's glare. Above is just a section of the panorama at the top of Wolf Branch Road. Pine Swamp Road runs from one end to the other in the picture. It was just ahead from where I pulled off the road. This particular view is a bit undramatic where landscape is concerned, but the clouds more than make up for the absence of dramatic hills.
Back in the car, I drove on up to Pine Swamp Road and turned left toward home. At the top of the rise in the road New Salem church house caught my eye, pristine as a jewel. The sun was on it full front, like the light was coming out of the wall. It shaded the features nicely, making it articulate in the spotlight. I thought of stopping to take another picture, but the light was so intense, I thought it might come out blue like pictures of snow in sunlight. I probably would have done well to that, because it's been on my mind ever since. I've never seen it as beautiful as it was today.
Seeing New Salem, a memory came to mind from a quarter century ago when New Salem was Regular Baptist. It was a night during a revival, late in the revival, maybe Friday night. Elder Millard Pruitt was the one preaching. He had the spirit that night and everybody was feeling good. When the preaching was over, the hand shaking began, everybody singing, and the hand shaking spontaneously made a circle. Everyone kept on singing when the hand shaking was done. No one offered to leave. Everyone, maybe 20 or so people, stood in the circle singing and singing, song after song. In a little bit somebody got happy. Directly across the circle from where Brother Millard was standing a woman of 250 to 300 pounds in a Coca-Cola truck red skin tight jumpsuit, throwing arms all the way wide open to clap her hands indicating she was on her way to out of control. Her brunette hair had either just been to the beauty shop or it was a wig. I've never seen the woman before nor since.
She took a bead on Millard and set out across the space inside the circle hopping like a red Michelin woman with all her undergarment lines pronounced like they were on the outside, hopping like a frog as in the child's game May I? Take 6 frog leaps clapping. Every time her feet hit the floor she clapped her hands. Her weight went to the bottom as soon as she hit the floor and sprang back up carrying her with it into the next frog leap. Millard Pruitt weighed less than a hundred pounds. Preaching drained his energy drastically. He was a frail shut-in who spent his days in a recliner after several heart attacks. I saw her weight hopping in voluminous bounds across the inside of the circle and realized Millard was in trouble.
In my mind's eye, I saw her engulfing his entire head between her breasts, him loving it, her flinging all her weight on him expecting him to catch her like she was 4 years old hopping to daddy. I saw her take hold of him and take him over backwards, her grip tighter than ever, and the next thing an ambulance carrying him to the funeral home. He could not have survived it. I slipped out of the circle and planted my feet firmly behind Brother Millard and put my hand up to catch him when she struck. She did just as I saw, buried his face between her breasts, engulfed him with her big arms. He lurched backwards and I pressed my hand firmly against his back holding him up, inconspicuously as possible, giving him some flex too so she wouldn't knock the wind out of him. He would have died for sure if she'd fallen on top of him. He thanked me later, said he thought he was a gonner.
At the bottom of the hill on Pine Swamp Road where it turns right is a stretch of road before the left turn onto Brown Road at what used to be Cary Brown's dairy. In the middle of that little bit of a straight stretch I saw a dead possum on the road a 25 years ago. Next day another dead possum lay flattened beside it. I thought: Romeo and Juliet Possum. Every time I pass that place I think of those possums and feel a second of sorrow. I forget that roadkill animals and birds have mates that miss them, same as cats and dogs have humans missing them. A little ways up Brown road I pass the place where the truck self-immolated leaving a black stain on the gravel. Memories of flames shooting 10 feet out the window both sides. Memories of buying a fire extinguisher at Farmer's Hardware to carry inside the car, not in the trunk as recommended on the packaging. It's probably sound counsel for someone with a car several people have access to, kids, leaving kids alone in the car. Trunk is a good place for certain circumstances. For my circumstance, it goes within easiest possible reach, the armrest between the seats. Out of sight. Fits perfectly. Easy access.
Pass Green Mountain on the left, the mountain Jr named the Green Mountain Boys for, where the fire tower used to be, replaced by cell phone towers, now a Cuban subdivision, one of several around the county. I climbed the fire tower in my first years here when I was a bedazzled tourist in my new home. It did, indeed, have a view all the way around. Leave the pavement and head up the mountain on the gravel road with ferns on both banks of the road, trees, shaded around the first curve almost dark from thickness of the trees, and eyes adjusting to the shade after being wide open in full sunshine. New houses, new houses. The subdivision along Air Bellows Gap Road. My road next to the old house that is one of the original houses on the mountain that continues to stand, the only house I like, the house the other people up here want torn down, except Allan Joyce, because it's an eyesore. The mountain azaleas along the winding road down the hill are in full flower. Before the road was paved, every time I drove down the hill on my road seeing the little valley I live in, I would think this was the most beautiful place I'd ever been. Since they tore down the trees and raised the road 2 feet, widened it and paved it, making it a highway and a weekend racetrack in the summers, it's just another road. But, before it was a gravel road it was a pair of wagon tracks and before that a horse and foot path.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Earlier today I went out with camera to get some pictures of the greenery at its peak, locusts in bloom, mountain laurel blooms coming on, multiflora in flower, the varieties of green seemingly more luscious greens this year than I remember in the past. Maybe it's the wetness. I'm most inclined to say it's my memory. The green things this year appear to be happy. I was looking around, some locusts in a stand of trees that favored trees in African wildlife documentaries that giraffes eat from. The varieties of green were interesting, but not. Unsatisfied, I looked upward at the clouds. That's where the action was. The sky was such variety of clouds it was overwhelming. I saw a straight line in the midst of a sky full of curved lines. One of the reasons I think the human mind has such a difficult time comprehending "nature" is that God creates with curved lines. The human mind in civilization creates with straight lines.
I was told at lunch today that grief is an expression of ego. What could I say? Of course. It was my friend Jim Winfield. He approached it gently, not wanting to make me think he's judging, because he wasn't. It was a legitimate concern. But, hell, I've known that for a lot of years. In Dr. Jim Jones's American lit class, it was the subject of John Crowe Ransom's poem about the chicken, Clucky, dying and the little girl crying. She cried for herself. Then, it was a new concept I had a difficult time grasping. I'd cried over pets dying, thinking it was about the pet, not about me. Then John Ransom told me it's about me. Good insight. I've grieved the loss of friends and pets since then. Knowing it's about me doesn't ease the anguish for me. And I don't believe that knowing it's about me is good reason to make myself feel nothing. I miss my friends. Friends are valuable to me, the most valuable. My friends occupy big places in my heart. When one drops out, for me, it's a serious loss. Sure it's ego. So what. Ego motivates everything. I didn't want to start the game I-know-more-than-you-do, so I didn't say something like, Getting a haircut is ego. Talking is ego. Eating is ego. And that's what we were doing, talking, eating and both of us had recent haircuts. Ego was everywhere. Everybody coming and going was motivated by ego, just like me. He's become hyper-aware of ego in this phase of his spiritual path. I've had my time of worrying over ego in this and ego in that, until I saw there's no way out of it. It may grow less demanding over time, but it doesn't go away, that is until Enlightenment, which I'm not holding my breath for. After Enlightenment you're not fit for anything in this world, so might as well go on and leave the body, be done with it. In this world, there's ego.
My response was that I'm not denying my feelings. So my feelings aren't educated about ego. I believe my feelings are too reliable a guide to regard them irrelevant because ego sets them in motion. Writing this blog is the biggest ego event of all. I thought about bringing that up, but didn't want to talk about it. We have different ways of seeing things, as is natural for individual egos. We both accept that. Therefore, we can talk at length about anything that comes up without getting mad. Gerald Leftwich and Gary Joines passed our booth on their way out. Leftwich said to Joines, "Everything's all right. These 2 got it all worked out." Jim asked about Gary Joines, what he did. I said he plays fiddle and bass. He also works at the bank. That's where Jim knew him from, the bank. I told Jim I said first of Gary that he plays the fiddle, because that's what he does. The bank job is making a living. Both of them, Gerald and Gary, have an ongoing sense of humor that is wide open, in the old-time mountain tradition. Humor is another aspect of mountain culture taken over by television the way Walmart took over small businesses throughout the country. Both of them keep me laughing all the time when I'm around them.
So ego has been on my mind all afternoon. Thinking mainly about how casual I've become about it when I remember a period of time I was thinking like Winfield. Early on the spiritual path, it's very serious business, when farther along one finds it's not serious at all. There's nothing serious about it. Serious logjams the flow. If God wants me to have less ego, God knows how to diminish it. I've had several diminishments along the way, for which I'm grateful. I like not believing I'm the most important, and I like not demanding that I always be first, that my will be done, that you pay attention to me because I know what's best for you. NOT. Not me. Though I cannot say there wasn't a time in my life when I thought like that. It didn't get anywhere. Not a very cooperative mind.
I have chosen out here in the world for my spiritual path, which is where I believe it's really about. Every kind of experience anyone could want is available somewhere in the world, from the highs to the lows, everything in between. I take my path in the Christian world as that is my own personal heritage, among the people of the mountains, again my own personal heritage, surrounded by the green world for harmony and clarity of spirit. I have to allow God to guide me, because I don't have a clue. I have to let God take care of the ego. When I came to the mountains I made it a point to myself that I would meet people as God gave them to me. I would seek to meet no one for any reason. I have to say I'm happy with the people God mixed me up with. Very happy. It keeps growing, like welling up in the heart at the thought of how happy I am with the people I know. I've learned to know people as who they are, not what they are. I've found people of such great inner stature they leave me in awe. I've known people who have convinced me by their very being that old-time mountain Baptist religion is a very real path. Two names I can give who come to mind instantly, Bessie Brooks and Tom Pruitt. There are others. Both of these people had a brilliant inner light. In my sight, Bessie glowed. I have seen Tom with light radiating out of him, his face baby pink, talking about his Savior. I was drawn to Sister Bessie's light. We had a special rapport, like friends who hadn't seen each other for a very long time.
And there was Sabe Choate. Black farmer, spiritual man, lived in the sight of God. I felt I had a special rapport with Sabe too. We always stopped and talked as friends when we saw each other. I mowed the lawn at the church for several years that was surrounded on 2 sides by his meadow. When he'd be out on the tractor, he'd ride over to the fence, I'd turn off the mower and we'd talk. Every time, he said to me, 'The Lord's gonna bless you for what you're doin." Sabe was as humble a man as I've ever known. Jr Maxwell was a good example of real humility, but old man Sabe was humble down on his knees, a man with only good will in his heart. I couldn't help but honor Sabe whenever I was around him by speaking up to him like I'm speaking to a man I respect, because that's what I was doing. He and his wife both came down with "old-timers," she taken away first to the nursing home.
One Sunday morning Sabe appeared at the open door of the church, standing at the threshold holding his hat down in front with both hands. This was the church Sabe grew up in. It was sold to white people after he was grown. I could hardly stand it. Elder Millard Pruitt, Tom's brother, said, "Come on in, Sabe." Sabe stepped delicately to the very same seat I sat in my first time inside that door. I could see that he was gone. It was tremendously sad for me. I spent the whole time praying for him. During handshaking time, no one shook Sabe's hand. I did. I was actually stunned that no one shook Sabe's hand. They all knew him. These were the people I loved and they didn't have it to shake Sabe Choate's hand and it so obvious his innocent condition. I threw it off at the time, but it didn't go away. After the meeting, Sabe's car wouldn't start. He cranked it and cranked it. Nothing happened.
I went to see if I could help in any way, not being a mechanic, but to offer support. A preacher and a deacon were standing talking about 15 feet away, not offering any kind of assistance, not even offering notice. I didn't want to let it, but the experience amounted to a knife in my heart. I couldn't understand that all of them were able to deny this humble man who grew up in this church house, whose family was buried across the road, who lived in sight of the church house. He was the church's nearest neighbor. Something inside me died that day despite telling myself not to let it be a bother. This is their world. I was ok with them doing what they had to do. I wasn't comfortable with them any more. It wasn't about politics and civil rights. It was about basic humanity. Or so I thought. I can see now I had come up on a wall in Southern mountains culture I didn't know was there. That's all it was. They were ok with me doing what I did.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Friday I found at Walmart a 4cd set of Vietnam film footage, Over 23 hours, for $5. My figuring was it wouldn't be much, but still, it's interesting Vietnam footage. It starts off with Lyndon Johnson's lies that justified for the public the the war the DOD was going to do anyway. The Bush-Cheney way of starting a war was not new. It was difficult for me to look at Johnson. I was glad to see him go out in infamy for his lies and for turning our government over to the Texas Oil Cartel. History has born out what Barbara Garson alleged in her play of the Kennedy assassination, McBird. Everything Ike warned against in his retirement speech, Johnson gave us. Long Johnson profiles at the mic. I'd forgotten how big his ears were. Turns out it's a DOD film, much worry about Communists in the beginning. I had to laugh when they called the bombing of the American Embassy a terrorist act. Next they show jets firebombing villages and cities. Hooray for us! Death from the sky. It's only when the bomb maker can't afford a plane to deliver it they're called terrorists. Drop multiple firebombs on as many people as possible and that's the right thing to do.
There is a very long period of time watching fighter jets take off to go on a bombing run, all of them, a long time. Then see through cameras in the planes the villages erupting in big balls of flame and black smoke, a section of a city with one explosion after another in a straight line for probably a half mile or a mile on the ground. Of course, the point is, isn't this exciting--look what our boys are doing over there--putting our tax dollars to work. That's what I was supposed to see. What I saw was hundreds and thousands of people snuffed out by fire, buildings falling on them, the roar of American jets, crying orphans. They show lots of footage of what terrorists do with a planted bomb at the embassy in Saigon, but we don't get to see what happens on the ground when death rains from the sky. That part's ok. It's patriotic. It's freedom in action. It's what we do.
This is film footage like in action movies where machine guns are going all over the place and nobody is getting hit. You never see a GI with anything but a smile on his face. DOD footage, and that's great. This is the part we were given for the news, approved by DOD censors. The soundtrack music is 3 or 4 white guys singing Red River Valley with a guitar. Somebody liked that song an awful lot. Again, this is the stuff that makes it fun. I like to watch jets take off and land. I can have my fill of that. When one takes off, I get to see all of them take off. It definitely was not edited for boxoffice. After they've killed as many people and their pets and livestock as they could get done, considering their limitations, I get to watch all the jets land, one by one.
I'm not looking for information. This is not a source for any of that. But it is a good source for visuals of our bases, pilots talking, which I enjoy hearing, day to day type events. Back at the base everybody is busy at work while the planes go out and shoot balls of fire to the ground. The pilots are heroic in that if they get shot down, it's the next several years in the Hanoi Hilton and they all know it. It's fun seeing how the propaganda that worked in the past continues to work today. I'm reminded that our collective national identity is created by propaganda, as with all the other countries in the world. Best for me to stay out of it. War is what the species does. We came out of the trees chucking spears at one another. War is serious business. It's what men do and little boys want to grow up to do. It keeps the young guys off the streets and the sales of GI Joe dolls up.
Back to the mountain, I cut an apple into about 10 slices and took them to the horse, gave them to her, one by one. She never bit my fingers or even came close. I stepped over the fence and she came walking toward me. Holding the apple slices in 2 hands, I held them down away from her nose and leaned forward for her to sniff my arm. She caught my scent and rubbed the side of her face against me, a kind of horse hug. I loved it. She recognized me as the tailless monkey that talked to her one day. I noticed piles of her droppings and thought what good fertilizer for rhododendron and other greenery. What do you suppose would be the odds of getting fined by USGov for using a fertilizer that does not have an oil base? Unpatriotic. Surely the oil lobby has seen to such a law by now.
Before watching about 20 minutes of the VietNam footage, I'd watched an American film from 1957, Twelve Angry Men. A jury room drama. It's a play with 12 actors. All of them were faces I recognize from later years when they were old. Henry Fonda looked dapper and carried himself well. Hard to believe an actor with pretty fair talent spawned Peter and Jane who exhibit little to no talent for acting. Peter Fonda is an actor I never could develop a taste for. Jane has the emotional range of a straight line. Yes, Jane has a body, as does everyone else. I suspect this film is the best as an acting tour de force I think I've seen of Henry Fonda. He carried Twelve Angry Men well, even performed some subtleties. I felt for Henry back in the days when his kids were among the hip children of the stars taking designer drugs, exhibiting more ambition than talent, telling on talk shows about Henry the dysfunctional dad. Like he's to blame because they can't act.
It was a well conceived and written story of 12 people entirely different from each other in the way it is when you get that many people together picked more or less randomly. There were a couple of tough guys, a very well off, well educated guy, EG Marshall in his youth, an educated immigrant, a big-mouth blustery fellow, Ed Begley, a guy who was a bit nerdy, a Madison Ave guy who couldn't think for himself, a sports fan who couldn't get interested in the trial. The writers of the script understood American men. Every one was an individual, and every one American. It's a story in which intelligence wins over ignorance. Not necessarily realism, but it deals with the importance of the jury as a legal method. The angry in the title had to do with the men angry with each other. They got into some loud moments when it looked like a couple of the oldest ones were about to light each other up. I felt like the writer of the story set out to lock 12 men in a room and see what happens. I was in the 10th grade when it made its theater run. It wasn't the sort of movie my parents would see. We went to drive-ins and saw westerns.
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Friday, May 21, 2010
Music again tonight at Woodlawn in Jill Freeman's frame shop, The Front Porch. A big crowd tonight. 25 to 30 people. A little bit crowded. It was Steve Lewis night. Steve and Scott are something like musical twin souls. They play together well. Steve played with Alternate Roots during the time of their last 2 albums. He was a major addition to the band when he came in. I saw Alternate Roots play 14 or 15 times. Went to the Carter Fold at Hiltons VA to see them perhaps the last time. When the band ceased to be a band, I fell into a period of grief as though a close friend had died. They were a good band. If you ever come upon an Alternate Roots album, it's some good music, whichever album it is. Katy Taylor, Scott and Willard Gayheart did the vocals. All equally good bluegrass singers. And good bluegrass musicians. They are a band that will be appreciated in 20 or so years. Like Scott and Willard's band before AR, Skeeter and the Skidmarks, made 2 albums and the banjo picker was taken away. 20 years later they've made a 3rd album, by popular demand. More and more people are wanting something by Skeeter & the Skidmarks. Edwin Lacy, who played banjo with Skeeter, will be playing at the Front Porch June 4. It promises to be a night of good music too. Lacy has a style all his own and he composes songs with good words that sound like old-time songs. I could just about say his banjo style is much like his name, lace-like.
Steve Lewis is one of the great musicians of the moment in this region of the mountains. He's mid 40s and plays both guitar and banjo equally well. Doesn't sing much, but when he does, he's good at it, too. Steve grew up at Todd and will most likely always live there. He said he was recently in the recording studio with Doc Watson. Tonight, he played his Henderson guitar. He told some Wayne Henderson stories. When Eric Clapton was considering making the trip to Rugby to meet Wayne, Clapton's publicist called Wayne and asked him, "You think security will be a problem?" Steve imitated Henderson's voice saying, "Well, I don't think so." Security from what? Hillbillies? Not very good. I don't think Clapton made the trip, but he'd have loved it if he had, even though he is an old English urban hippie. I've heard him on the MTV Unplugged dvd and can only say he's got nothing on any guitar picker around here who plays in public. Acoustic. Electric, Clapton rules. I wished I'd never heard him play Layla acoustic.
Perhaps the Clapton I like the best is the studio jam session cd that came with the Blind Faith album when it became a cd with the original cover. It's like hearing Bob Dylan's Albert Hall concert when he first played acoustic, then electric. One of those great moments in time when rock & roll became Rock. There was something spontaneous about Dylan and the Band playing to the Boos and hollering against them. The electric band playing great Dylan music and the audience in all-out vocal resistance. It gave the music a spontenaiety to my ear, a spontenaiety like the jamming by the musicians in Blind Faith. Not that it sounds like it in any way. To my ear, they have a similar spirit. They connect, albeit by the thinnest of threads.
Steve and Scott are good comedians during a concert. They both have enough stage experience that they can work the humor like a stage comedian. They do it in banter. Steve, talking about an old picker said, "A groundhog delivers his mail now." Everybody in the audience set to laughing at that and couldn't stop. Steve went on talking and the people continued to laugh, like peepers, 1 or 2 over here, 2 or 3 over there, going through the audience like that, running through everybody several times. It rattled around in everybody's heads and every time they looked at it, it was funnier than the time before. He handled it well, too, like an experienced comedian.
Scott got a good one on Willard. Willard had just finished playing a couple songs with Scott before Steve came on. Willard said something about Scott being his partner. As Willard got up to put his guitar away, Scott said, "Willard, why don't you ever call me your son-in-law?" Willard bent over laughing. Willard was the one Scott told jokes on in Alternate Roots shows. They were always funny too. Jokes about being old, stage humor. Willard would hang his head like he was humiliated, though he'd be laughing because he didn't always know what Scott was going to say, and it was as funny to him as to the audience. All 3 of these guys have shared a stage for several years, have a good rapport speaking publicly with genuinely funny humor.
I actually got a video of Steve and Scott playing Clinch Mountain Backstep, and Steve talking about Ralph Stanley while he was tuning his banjo for it. The sound came out good enough. I attempted to upload it here for the picture, but it took way too long, so I cancelled it. I don't want to logjam your computer. This little ole camera does surprising things. It took a good visual and the sound was pretty good too, considering it's mic is a hole the size of a paper clip wire and I was at least 10-12 feet away. Again, I'm awed by the nearness of such good musicians, people who are not pretentious in even the farthest corners of their minds. Steve, Scott and Willard, such good musicians for $5.
2 hours of listening to Steve Lewis and Scott Freeman pick and sing in an intimate at-home place where everyone is snug and cozy, all enjoying superb music, and, like me, enchanted that it's right here. You don't have to go to New York to hear them. You don't have to go to Las Vegas to hear them. In the age of tv and pop music we don't tend to think of our neighbors as better entertainment than what is "out there." Out there is always better than where we are. Not so in these hills. I'd rather hear Steve Lewis play the banjo than Steve Martin any day. I can shorten it even further, I'd rather hear Steve Lewis play banjo than anybody. That doesn't mean I think he's better than anybody. His style and tone of banjo pickin suits my ear, and his ability is something to behold.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
At 8:45 this morning I set out on the highway for Clintwood, Virginia, coal mining country near the Kentucky border in Dickenson County. Clinch Mountain country. Arrived at noon. Road work along the way probably set timing back an hour. I reckoned it would take about 2.5 hours, and it might have without all the times of stopping so long I turn the motor off and leave the radio going. There were times in the mountains there was no radio reception. Though I found a good one, 88.7 FM WMMT Whitesburg, Kentucky. All the time I was listening they were playing early bluegrass, Reno & Smiley, Monroe, Stanleys, Hi-Lo Brown. The dj's name was Mrs. Bluegrass. She played some good music. It felt good driving in the Clinch Mountains hearing bluegrass of my favorite period of bluegrass. Jim & Jesse are from that area. On the way to Clintwood, I took the old highway 72 instead of the 4-lane from Coeburn. I loved it. It twists and turns until you think you're about to tie a knot. Great big trucks. Narrow road.
This was the old road Ralph and Carter drove every day to Bristol and back to play the lunchtime radio show in their beginning. It was like that all the way to Bristol. All their driving to shows up and down the mountains was on roads as crooked as a running blacksnake. The mountains are walls either side of the highway, nearly straight up. The trees were full of fresh leaves everywhere. I came back by the 4-lane and regretted it. The longest Road Work wait of all. I'm glad I took 72, because it was the only road that gave the feeling of riding with the mountains. It gave me the experience of the Clinch Mountains, the legendary mountains of the Carter Family and Stanley Brothers. The other roads go through the mountains like they're not there. I thought of Ralph and Carter with their tires that used innertubes, changing flats by the side of the road at night. Years and years of driving serious mountain roads on weekends. I'd say by now Ralph is happy to have a bus and somebody else driving.
The man whose voice is these mountains knows these mountains well from all the years of mountain highways and being embraced by mountain people for the Stanley Brothers music that came out of the soul of these mountains. Ralph Stanley is as much a soul singer as Aretha Franklin. Carter too. Her soul came out of the church she grew up in. Ralph's soul came out of the mountain Primitive Baptist, which, where white soul is concerned, is soulful as it gets. A different culture, a different expression of soul. Aretha Franklin never brought me to tears like Ralph and Carter have. No music has brought me to tears like the Stanleys and the Carter Family. Years ago, the first time I heard Yasha Heifitz play Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, I laid down on the couch and wept. Essentially, it's mountain music. Only mountain music causes me to weep. It's so incredibly beautiful to my heart it fills me with an overflowing fullness my eyes well up and that's it. Feeling is what it's about in mountain music and Ralph Stanley is the master of singing with feeling like Heifitz can play a fiddle with feeling. Both have this special gift that sets them apart from all others. Tommy Jarrell has it too in his plain manner.
Clintwood, Virginia, is not between here and anywhere else. It's not a place to stop and see on the way to someplace. I decided if I'm going to see the Ralph Stanley Museum it will have to be a trip specifically for that. A day on the road in mountains I've not yet experienced. I like the road to Marion and I like 81 to Abingdon, and from Abingdon on it was alternate 58 to Coeburn where I turned onto real mountain highway, thinking about Ralph and Carter driving this road at least twice a day for a lot of years. By the time I reached Clintwood, I was ready. I walked up the steps to the door feeling this is really special. Big Southern manse of a house with enormous columns that sits up from the road on a rise, beautifully kept.
Inside, I met Richard Morris, the volunteer on duty. We talked for a long time about "Doc." He told me of how he's come to know Ralph since working with the museum and has the same respect for Ralph Stanley I can say I have for Jr Maxwell. A kind of awe of a man who has lived a full life well. I mentioned I remind myself from time to time Ralph Stanley is just a man. Richard said, He is, he's just a man. He told me a bit about Doc's car collection, his wife Jimmie, who drives a Jaguar and she's still a country girl. He told of the time Doc's white mule he thought the world of bit him on the shoulder. He sold it. I told him that all my listeners of the Saturday morning radio show love Ralph Stanley. Every once in awhile I have a Ralph Stanley or Stanley Brothers day. If this coming Saturday wasn't going to be Green Mountain Boys day, it would be Ralph Stanley. I'll get him in a week or 2. But I have to share GMB with my listeners now. A lot of them remember the band.
In the museum is a small room reminiscent of old-time church house with benches and a tv of Ralph Stanley talking. Displays of banjos and fiddles and guitars. Curly Ray Cline's fiddle was there. And his shoes. Instruments from the Clinch Mountain Boys on the walls. Album covers, photographs, videos of Ralph and Carter, little plug-in places to listen to individual songs. The one I chose to hear was The Girl From The Greenbriar Shore. Beautiful song. They all are. I've never heard a song by Ralph or Carter I didn't love as much as I love all the rest. They're all equal to me. When my friends from Georgia were here, I took them to Fairview Ruritan to see The Clinch Mountain Boys. The concert was Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys twice. Two shows, one after the other. When it was over, Judy wanted to buy a cd. Looking at the big selection they had, she asked me which one was the best. I said, They're all the best. I wasn't kidding. Like at the radio station, it doesn't matter what I pick to play by Ralph Stanley. All of it is good.
Once I was asked what's the best bluegrass song ever written. A question it seems to me is like asking which---it's so absurd, it's not even a question. A test question. I couldn't take it seriously, yet at the same time it made me review songs I liked the best. The best can only be answered according to the given individual. Ask a hundred people and you'll get a hundred different titles with some inevitable overlap. I said, White Dove. It just came to mind as my own particular favorite bluegrass song. Best? Who cares? When Carter sings it and when Ralph sings it, it lives, it's alive. And it's mountain as it gets.
I drove away from Clintwood listening to Mrs. Bluegrass playing me the right music for what I was feeling. I've just now asked myself why it was important that I visit the museum. I've wanted to for some years. Waiting for a good weather day when I have no schedules, when the car is in tune, fresh oil and a full tank. All of it coincided on my birthday. I give myself a birthday present every year. Today's pilgrimage was my happy birthday to me. And a good day it was. It's been quite a lot of years since I've driven the highways of SW Virginia. It's beautiful country. Best of all was Hwy 72, that Clinch Mountain road. Richard, pictured above, said he grew up on that road half way between Coeburn and Clintwood.
Still, I haven't addressed why it's important. Can't name it. It's like the time in the modern art museum in Zurich, Switzerland, I saw a marble sculpture by a favorite artist of mine, Jean Arp, white marble, called Cloud. It's absolutely against the rules in such a museum to touch anything but the floor. But I had to do it. With the tip of my finger for a split second, just enough to make contact. I knew I was doing no harm, only breaking a rule---I'm an American. We break rules. It was the same impulse, to make symbolic contact with an artist I appreciate way high up.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Monday, May 17, 2010
carter stanley, ray lambert. the stanley brothers. 1948