....you know that fortissimo audibly-narcissistic excessively-frequent use of the various permutations of the first-person pronoun ("I," "ME," "MINE," and far less frequently "we") that makes those words leap out of otherwise-ignorable faculty conversations in university coffeeshops and that makes a given faculty peer's conversation sound like "[mumble mumble mumble] I [mumble mumble] MY [mumble mumble ] inappropriate [mumble mumble mumble] MY OPINION "? That tone, inflection, focus, and general aura of unexamined self-love that makes entirely too large a percentage of the general population think we're spoiled out-of-touch pompous asses....? That one?
Don't ever do that.
[time to put in the earplugs]
*NB: thank God, with the exception of my music colleagues, most of whom have far more healthy senses of self-deprecation.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
Posted by CJS at 9:40 AM
Sunday, October 15, 2006
[Thanks to all readers for their patience while I got dug-out from the first half of the semester...and especially to those who took the trouble to contact me and tell me how much they missed "100 Greats" posts. Can't guarantee I'll get back to one-a-day, but it's nice to feel wanted.]
I loved Tom Binkley and he infuriated me.
I first met him in 1987, just after Dharmonia and I had moved to Indiana (which felt like the back of beyond from where we’d come) so that I could do a Master’s with David Baker, my revered jazz and composition teacher (I’ll tell the story of the lies the IU Dean of Music Admissions told me another day). Robert Prins, former horn with Stokowski, and my composition and orchestration teacher at U Mass Boston, had suggested graduate school (“Have you ever thought about graduate school?”… “No!” “Have you ever thought about
I have to reverse course and supply some back-story here. At the time that Dharmo went to college, the historical-performance movement was in its infancy, at least in the
So there wasn’t, at that time and place, much in the way of resources for Dharmo to find out that the world of historical performance existed, or that there were ensembles playing and recording medieval music, or even—if you were able and knew of their existence—places where you could go and study and learn to play it yourself. It was only years after undergraduate school that Dharmo encountered the LP’s (in beautiful, academic-looking packaging from EMI/Reflexe, with wild Dali-esque cover art (it was always easier to be an early-music specialist in Europe—the damned government would pay for your recordings) of a group called Der Studio der Fruehen Musik, a band name translated, inexplicably and with considerable mundanity, into English as “The Early Music Quartet.”
Tom Binkley led that band. Born in
The Studio, it is not too ambitious to say, transformed the conception of what medieval music had been and of what it could do, as an expressive art form. Binkley, Andrea, and
Dharmo, in the late ‘80s, was in the process of rediscovering historical performance, after years in rock and then folk/trad music (when she met me and Larmo around 1979—another story for another day—she says “I felt like I’d run away with Gypsy Davey”). She’d had the good fortune to start lessons with the superb Boston soprano Nancy Armstrong, and we’d sat through some concerts by certain “pre-eminent” early music ensembles (who weren’t fit to carry the Studio’s cases), but she was heading that way.
So, that hot day in 1987, in a stuffy, dim-lit hallway at
So we did. I enrolled in the Master’s program as a jazz guitarist (after cutting through the first of what would be literally decades of lies from various administrative types) and Dharmo in the Master’s program in historical performance. I’ll leave it to Dharmo, and to my colleagues in that last and final generation of Binkley students, to comment more directly about Tom as a classroom professor (thank God, I never had to receive a grade from him), and I’ll talk about the common ground on which he and I met.
Around spring of that first year (1988), Tom took it into his head that he wanted to stage the first modern production of Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo of 1647. Unlike Monteverdi’s masterpiece of 40 years before, Rossi’s version of the tale was utterly and completely over the top, with battle scenes, huge choral forces, a full string orchestra and two continuo groups, and (among other things) a giant onstage serpent and a deus ex machina that required a goddess to appear from the skies on a cloud.
Tom’s approach was equally over the top: it wasn’t enough that he would stage the first modern production of this opera (some things are meant to go out of the repertoire), but he would also create the first modern edition, using an early computerized notation program which his editorial assistants would have to learn at the same time that they were creating the score, and they’d somehow take a score which was over five hundred pages long and cut it down to fit within the union-mandated time limits of the Musical Arts Center, and that he would teach a whole cast full of plus-sized opera singers Baroque gesture, and use both continuo groups and the IU Baroque Orchestra, led (with remarkable forbearance, all things considered by Stanley Ritchie), and that they would use Baroque stage-design, dressing, and machinery—oh, and that Tom would conduct the production, in tie-wig and knee-britches, beating time (the downbeat “One” exclusively) with a rolled-up score a la Lully.
Dharmo, who was singing in the Pro Arte early-choral ensemble, was drafted by obligation, but I was operating far away from this whole undertaking, sweating out David Baker’s “Bebop History” class, learning his 101 bebop licks and playing them backwards-cycle-5 through all keys, transposing saxophone and trumpet exercises to the guitar, and encountering the genius of Peter Burkholder in his inaugural Charles Ives seminar. I heard from Dharmo, late at night in our rented student digs on the north side of town behind the all-night Adult Bookstore and general-purpose cruising ground (very interesting cavalcade of local notables sneaking down the alley behind our house), of the madness that was ensuing night-after-night on the MAC stage—and I thought I was well-clear of it. ‘Til one night she said Binkley had told her to ask me to come to the rehearsal the next night, after inquiring “Your husband, he’s a plucker, right?”
So I walked out on the MAC stage the next night into what looked not a little like Bedlam, with the strings down in the pit (and Stanley fuming, in his understated Aussie way), and a continuo group of gamba/violone, harpsichord, triple harp, theorbos, and various eccentrics on each wing, multiple teary sopranos who really Just Wanted to Sing Puccini, and Tom in the middle of it, glasses down on his nose, hair awry, with his (brilliant, sainted, and long-suffering) assistant Marika Kuzma at his elbow. He grinned that snaggle-toothed grin at me, shook hands, and threw me an English guitar (or “cittern”) at me: a double-coursed, wire-strung instrument with a short neck, crude threaded metal tuners, a yellowed ivory fingerboard, and holes drilled through the fingerboard for an old-style bolt and wingnut capo. The headstock on the thing was inscribed “1718” (and I’m convinced it was a dog in 1718—should have been left to hang on the wall of the barber-shop and never played), and it was in a weird rentrante tuning (where the pitch of the strings, from thickest to thinnest, goes up and then down again: completely alien to a poor bebop guitar player), and Tom said, “Here, play all that flowery stuff on the top.” I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.
But I went over to the other continuo group, the one that didn’t have a Baroque guitar, and sat down, and introduced myself to the other sufferers. They were obviously somewhat more inured to (but no less put-upon by) the Binkley approach (and several of them went on to distinguished careers themselves: after Tom anything seemed easy). They were looking at a poorly-dot-matrix-printed score that had the note-heads in the wrong direction and many missing basso continuo figures. At this time, I knew what figured bass was, but I had never tried to play from it. The nightmare was exacerbated by the fact that I didn’t know the tuning, and that I’d never played figured bass—but I was rescued by the fact that the people around me were already playing the chords, that I was used to play over a bassline (not dissimilar to a jazz lead sheet, except upside-down), and that Tom wanted me to play the “flowery stuff”—in other words, it was OK to improvise lines.
I worked my ass off on that thing, literally going through it chord by chord and figuring out both the sonorities and the fingerings that were required to make something coherent come out of the cittern, and I sat on the MAC stage night after night while this behemoth came together around us.
It was like every other Binkley production I would ever wind up playing, though I didn’t know that at the time: over-ambitious, confusing, changing direction from one night to the next, full of people at sea and scared that they weren’t going to be able to accomplish—or even understand—what the hell the man was driving at. A full Baroque orchestra, two continuo groups, onstage trumpets and drums, a full chorus, at least 18 soloists, a working script that literally changed every night as they fought to get a coherent story out of the libretto while still cutting two-thirds of the material, opera studio faculty who would squat in the house, trying to protect their little (or not-so-little) darlings until Binkley’s scary eccentricities chased them away, the Dean of the School hovering nervously in the wings and wondering aloud if the idea of a “collaboration” (hah!) between the Early Music Institute and the Opera Theatre had “been the best idea,” and in the background, the continuo players, subverting concentration between acts, playing bluegrass on lutes and theorbos. I still remember the night they tried staging the as-yet-unpainted giant serpent (in Rossi’s less-tasteful version of the tale, Euridice is bitten and dies onstage) and this 8-foot long papier-mache animated pink cylindrical thing swooped out from the wings chasing Euridice, and a tenor lisped “Well! No wonder she died!” and Euridice collapsed in laughter. And I remember the wings just before the dress-night curtain, when Tom said off-handedly to my brother-in-music Kim Pineda, flutist extraordinaire but drafted as a bass for the on-stage opening battaglia chorus, “Oh, yes. In the opening chorus, I want you all to fight.” Now, people spend their whole professional lives training to be fight designers, and actors spent months rehearsing the combat scenes in a given production, but here’s Tom dropping the ideas 40 seconds before the curtain—an archetypal moment. Kim, who’s as big as me (6’4”), a martial artist, and of Apache/Chicano ethnicity, says “O.K., Mr Binkley, if you say so,” and the curtain goes up on the wedding-cake Baroque grandeur of the set, and 60 people in tights 'n' hose race on from the wings, and the chorus begin flailing at one another with their prop swords. Needless to say, it was a trainwreck-scaled disaster.The next night, I remember, they had fixed the whole "fight/no-fight" issue--Tom, in typical style, had cackled unapologetically at the morning's production meeting, and said "Heh heh...guess that was a bad idea!" and promptly forgotten all about it. So the next night it all starts again, and the strings hit the opening chord, and the curtain goes up, and there’s an audible gasp from the audience, and the string orchestra crashes into the opening battaglia fanfare, and the chorus suck in a giant shared breath for the first sung chord, and Tom, who is staring open-mouthed over his half-glasses at the stage, obviously entranced by the fact that this whole ungainly albatross of a production is actually going to happen, completely… forgets… to give the downbeat.
And that opening rallantando string chord is stretching verrryyy longgggg and then the heroic soprano Maria Goncalves, a fantastic Portuguese singer, belts out an unintentionally-solo All’assalto Assalto and the entire chorus comes crashing in on the next downbeat, and you hear the reaction from the audience, who scream their applause for three full minutes after the opening number.
And, sitting on that stage in knee breeches, with an instrument you don't really play, playing music you don't really understand, you realize that, for months, this picture has been in Binkley’s head, and that he knew all along what he wanted (criminally unable or unwilling to explain it, of course) and that it’s that vision—that infuriating vision—that saw further and differently than anyone else did which has made him your teacher. Afterwards, the Dean came running backstage at the intermission, and exclaimed “Thomas, Thomas….it’s a miracle!” He didn’t know the half of it.
It happened again and again with Tom. Again and again he would take it in his head to do something, usually something utterly unrealistic, far beyond the expressive or technical capacities or experience of his student players, and there would be months of agony—and usually a lot of infuriation—and then something miraculous would happen. I remember his production of the Greater Passion Play from Carmina Burana, the centerpiece of which was a naked Adam and Eve--in Indiana!--being hounded out of the Garden by a pair of shawms playing a quarter-tone apart—on purpose; in which the great choreographer Jacques Cesbron, who knew nothing about medieval dance but was game for anything, said “I don’ know—I just look at a lot of Brueghel painting, you know? And then I hope for ze best”; in which, after one marathon rehearsal, Tom handed me the gitarra saracenica (basically a medieval saz) that he himself had played on a record whose grooves I'd worn out, pointing to the most mincing of the counter-tenors, and said “here, teach him that piece—he can’t read worth a shit”; the performance which, my old friend Jann says, made her, during her audition week, decide to come to Indiana (going home to her husband and saying “Yeah, and they’ve got this rock guitar player on saz”).
I remember our recreated performance of the Moroccan nawba originally recorded by the Royal Ensemble of Fez at the Schola in the ‘70s which some lunatic Swiss had laboriously transcribed with all the barlines in the wrong place (Tom spent a lot of time in Morocco in the 60s, where I’d guess he managed most of the recreational activities the Beats had discovered 15 years before), when the Azeri lead singer drafted for the performance insisted that Tom’s Moroccan Arabic was “all wrong,” and told the soprano-star-of-the-moment, preening herself over her “phonetic” pronunciation, that she “might have been ordering ‘amburgers,” and Tom insisted that the three sopranos playing tambourine in the complex shifting rhythms of the nawba and muwashshsah should improvise their parts (a process, as well as an instrument, about as far away from those girls’ aptitudes as it was possible to get and still be in the realm of music), and Tom, deciding the concert was too short, hauls out some manuscript written in his inimitable (beautiful, precise) notation and hands it to us, and says "read this!" and I look at the pencilled notes on the manuscript, and, seeing the written command "watch Sterling's bow!" realize that he's handed me the actual pages from which the Studio sight-read.
I remember the concert where he said to Dharmo, 3 minutes before walking onstage, “Hey, do you know the version of Sancta Maria strela do Dia from our record?” and expected her to go out and sing it with zero rehearsal—which she did. The epochal Collegium Directors’ conference, in his last year of teaching, convened when Tom already knew he was dying of cancer but was hanging on in the job until he could thrash a far and full financial package for his wife and daughters out of the miserable tightwads who’d hired him in the first place, when we were the featured ensemble, and Tom sat three feet away from us, gray with pain and grinning from ear-to-ear as we played. I remember those times.
The last time we spent much time with Tom Binkley, when the malcontents and remoras who preyed upon him had finally left the EMI, and he was about to retire on full pay, we were in San Francisco, and we went to see him, at his family’s country place on a mountain in the hills of Northern California, where he’d built a geodesic dome in the early ‘70s, thinking, after the wildness of the Studio’s ‘50s and ‘60s, that he’d retire there. It was almost a dream getting there: driving my sister’s borrowed little red Mazda convertible, switchback-after-switchback up into the dry hills, up the single-lane, barbed-wired-lined dirt road that led through the US Army installation that ringed the highest hill like a monk’s tonsure, until we pulled into the live-oak shaded dirt yard of what looked like a classic post-‘60s hippie homestead. There was a tractor at one side of the dome and there were mobiles hanging in the trees. Dharmo was deathly ill with carsickness, and promptly puked after the hellos.
Dharmo picks up the thread:
He said “Well, that’s a fine thing, you come all the way up here to see me, and then you get sick,” and then proceeded to fuss over me like a mother hen and try to get all kinds of ginger tea and herbal whatevers into me. When I recovered about 2 hours later, I wolfed the rest of the turkey chili. He tried very hard to get us to stay overnight, plying us with stories about the star-viewing attributes of the mountain. One of my great regrets is that we did not stay – if I could turn back the clock, I would have stayed the night and most of the next day. At that point I think I did not really believe yet that he was going to die.
But I believed it. I knew it. I knew we were going to lose him. Tom was chagrined but animated…and thin, thin, thin (I never realized so much as at that visit how much he looked like my by-then-deceased father). When Dharmo had recovered, we sat on the wooden front steps and talked—of all things and at Tom’s insistence, about Time. About how time was experience, and perception, and subjective, and that it was all happening Right Here, Right Now. And always had been.
Afterwards, he took us on a walk up to the pond he was building, while he said hello to the mule deer who grazed fearlessly next to the house (“Hello, Mabel. Hello, Marge.”) We looked at his pond—in
That was eleven years ago.
I could never claim to speak for Dharmo, or for all of Tom Binkley's students, or even for those Binkley students who were my contemporaries and beloved brothers-and-sisters in the lineage. I hope that they are telling their stories of him and of all the passion, intensity, infuriating intellectual curiosity, and sheer love with which he used his time here. He didn't waste any days.
As for what Tom Binkley gave to me, and to Dharmo, and to the colleagues of my own Binkley generation, and to the generations of the Binkley lineage before us, and to our own students who, through the imperfect and reduced medium of our own teaching, meet Binkley’s genius and continue his lineage, my gratitude is beyond words. Or at least beyond prose.
I loved him. And he was my teacher. This is a poem for him, and for the lineage.
He was our teacher.
People ask how it was,
and it’s hard to know how to reply.
Frustrating, we know,
Infuriating and inspiring;
Internally contradictory (“question everything,” he said),
If the past is a foreign country,
then he taught us to be ethnographers
to go there gradually, but again and again,
leaving behind received perspectives
customs and norms;
to discover what the landmarks, rocks, and trees--
the songs and stories--
would consent to tell us,
and to return
bearing those insights.
What was it like?
It was like growing up
learning music, a cradle tongue,
a parent’s face,
or the voice of a beloved teacher,
in a distant country
--in memory of Tom Binkley, 2.21.03
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Originated in a comment on Terminal Degree about coping with undergrads' lack of training in how to prioritize lecture information:
They don't know how to take notes. That is not taught any more in K-12 public-systems, which "No Child Left Behind" has forced to teach to standardized tests. They are not taught to synthesize or to assess more vs less significant data. One does in fact have to teach them.
However, the "teaching-to-the-test" syndrome has taught them something of potential usefulness: how to follow templates. Every assignment I give has a "help-file" which both articulates in prose how the assignment is to be completed (to complement my in-class description and provide a handy reference to instructions) but *also* a "sample"/template. If I don't want them to follow the template too slavishly, I'll supply 2 or more variants (e.g., "essay" model versus "bullet-point" model); this permits different students to process data in different but equally-effective ways.
You say" I do NOT want to ask students to turn in their notes--I'd have to read over 150 sets of notes, and I don't have a TA."
I'd submit that you need not conflate "completing/turning in" the assignment with your having to "read every one." Instead, have them turn in the assignment (we use WebCT) and *spot-check* 1 in 10 for recurrent problems. That gives you a much more precise sense of where the problem areas are concentrated and you can in turn highlight those problems in followup lectures. If you have the students *both* submit assignments via upload *and* bring hard-copies, they can mark their own assignments in response to your followup remarks. Those marked-up assignments then become additional, individually-tailored help-files (and files which those individuals have *specifically* processed on their own with your prompting).
"I've found that the less I write on a powepoint slide, the more they will write down."
Yes! If I have five bullet points for a PPT slide, I will do a "Ctrl-Insert-Dup" file 5 times, so that the five-points are spread over 5 slides, viz:
* Bullet Point I
* Bullet Point I
* Bullet Point II
* Bullet Point I
* Bullet Point II
* Bullet Point III
This way, you don't have to advance from I to II, or II to III, until they have had the opportunity to write down the depicted bullet point and *you* have had the opportunity to discuss *each point in detail while they are paying attention."
"I also use "fill in the blank" slides."
Yes. Or, simply put up a "single-question" slide. (Any PPT text that ends with a question will *absolutely* be transcribed verbatim in their notebooks--and that question mark will definitely cliam their attention)
"When we watch DVDs, I give out handouts in the form of questions which they have to answer."
In addition, we have a detailed worksheet which they are obligated to fill out, to their best of their abilities, for each piece heard in class. We use LaRue's SHMRG acronym for style characteristics, and the 1-page worksheet breaks each of the 5 categories into about 10 individual prompting questions. We do not expect students to respond while listening to *every* question, but we can be reasonably confident that each student is being forced to *consider* each question as s/he listens.
Students are required to maintain an up-to-date running tally of worksheets, one per piece heard over the full course of the semester, and to keep them in a 9x12 manila envelope, brought to class, which is subject to collection in any class meeting w/out warning. This puts teeth in their sense of the necessity of staying up to date.
"And I do frequent "break into groups" breaks"
Excellent. I would add, to this, time at the *end* of the group-break sessions for each team to be called upon to report their individual group conclusions. This is a great way to get dialog going between different groups of students (which of course diversifies and enlivens class interaction).
"But during a lecture (and I keep those lectures short, I promise), they don't apply pen to paper."
We have lecture-note taking assignments, in which I will give a short, 5-minute potted lecture (highly detailed, often based upon a Grove biographical summary), and which notes they will then have to upload for my spot-check. We similarly have lecture-note-taking sections in exams, in which they are required to supply Scan-Tron'ed answers to a lecture excerpt given during the exam.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Originated in comments over on Terminal Degree:
[Query was re/ whether "12- to 14-hour work days" should be considered "normal":
From a just-post-tenure perspective, here's a two-pronged observation that may help you re-think your level of preparation a bit:
(1) Sometimes over-preparation (12-14 hours/day is *too much work*) results because anything less than "total prep" feels shaky to us. That is, we think "what if I run out of material in class?" or "What if the students (or observing colleagues) think they're not getting enough?" I would submit that, though understandable, this results from a MIS-understanding of the purpose of a lecture-based class in the arts. Your job is not--cannnot be--giving them "everything there is to know" or even "everything you know" about a given music topic. Though it seems an obvious insight, it's easy to lose sight of just how rudementary *any* undergraduate music student's background in the lecture's material can be. You need to adjust your expectations about the sheer volume of material they are *capable* of taking in.
In other words: you should not teach according to your sense of "what there is to know" about the topic, but rather according to your (trained, experienced, empirically-observed, pedagogue's) sense of "what they can assimilate" TODAY about the topic.
In this sense, I think that we can see excessive over-preparation as proceeding from a certain *lack of awareness* of the students' actual capacities.
Want to test this?
Ask yourself if you sometimes, frequently, or even regularly have *too much material* and find yourself having to skip bullet points, whole slides, or whole explanations. If this is happening, you are over-preparing.
Remember: in teaching lecture classes, the crucial pedagogical question is *never* "how much do they need to know?" (much as we might wish that) but rather "how much can they take and and USE at their current stage of development?"
NOTHING is so engrossing, in teaching fine arts to large lecture classes, as a dynamic, engaged, variegated, kinesthetic, bodily-involved lecturer. Yes, for our post-literate students, multiple (especially visual) simultaneous media are the norm--but the fact that they have not experienced the riveting capacities of a great *live performance* does not mean they will not respond to it: it's a basic form of human communication that goes back at least 40,000 years.
You should consider teaching at least 1 lecture in 3 with NO Powerpoints, readings, or other technology. Challenge yourself to provide *as much* engrossing visual stimulus with just the audio recordings and your own body. Move, gesture, change inflection, make jokes, address specific students, haul up a student to pose the next question for you, act out questions, etc. You will be surprised how much the students will engage with these techniques. You will also be surprised how many positive comments they will elicit on evaluations.
Saturday, September 23, 2006
There are two brilliant scenes in the otherwise-awful film Crossroads (Walter Hill, director of Hard Times, The Warriors and The Long Riders, among other greats, slipped up on that one) in which Ralph—apt name for the appropriate critical reaction!—Macchio plays a Juilliard guitar student who throws over playing Bach in order to run away to the Delta and learn the blues, and which climaxes with a truly wretched cutting contest in which Macchio’s callow-young-boy-in-a-porkpie-hat supposedly bests the Devil’s guitar-player—typecast with the great Steve Vai—by playing Bach.
Ralph! Or, more onomatopoeically: Bleaarrghh!
But there were two scenes that made the hairs on my forearms stand up. The first is the opening of the film, a beautifully-shot sepia toned evocation of Robert Johnson’s 1936
The other great scene, one that most people didn’t comment upon, was the spookiest in the whole film, for me: the POV jumps from Joe Seneca’s old bluesman remembering a 1930s encounter with Mr Scratch, the Devil’s henchman, at the crossroads, through a brief, hallucinatory montage, to the present-day Delta: Macchio and Seneca, young bluesman and old, standing in the dusty silence of the crossroads—an ancient place of power in African mythology—under a brown Delta sky, when a coal-black Camaro pulls up, and the tinted power window whines down, and the same Mr Scratch, 60 years later, dressed in a $2000 suit, glances sidelong up at them and says “Well, well, well, Willie Brown—fancy meeting you here!”
The blues has always occupied a “space in-between”—between our reality and the worlds inhabited by the old African pantheon of the orishas: Eshu and Obatala, Ogun and Oshuan, Shango and Yemanja, and the world of haints and spooks: Legba and High John the Conqueror; of the orishas’s new home in the swamps and cotton fields, piney woods and riverbanks of the Mississippi Delta. The reason most of us callow young bluesmen didn't sound right was because we didn't know that world--and, maybe, because we didn't know that other world.
The blues is about parallel worlds and their boundaries and dichotomies: black and white, North and South, rich and poor, Jesus and the Devil, prayer and sex, free and bound, and—overwhelmingly and at its very core—the inextricably intertwined continuum of joy and grief. The blues lives on those boundaries and it thrives—and depends—on the places in-between, where its symbols, and its players, and even its archetypes like Mr Scratch who’ll meet you at the crossroads—the boundary between four different directions—play at full rein. That’s what the blues does—it helps people negotiate the inevitable experiences of joy and grief. The greatest of the bluesmen learned to seek those boundaries and even to revel in them, to dance and drink and fuck and fight and sing in that liminal place “in-between.” Some took that liminal power as their arrogant due—like Charlie Patton; some learned to live there with a grin and a wink—like Peetie Wheatstraw, the “Devil’s Son-in-Law.” Some seemed to have been annealed by suffering to a place of spiritual peace—like Blind Willie Johnson. Some were simply too tough for the devil to defeat them—like Blind Gary Davis and my old friend Blind Arvella Gray.
Still others learned to live at that boundary, to inhabit both sides of that liminal divide, but never happily—rather instead to teeter back and forth on the sharp edge between God and the Devil, between lost and saved, between Saturday night and Sunday morning. Little Richard, in his greatest years, was like that, one year screeching about sassy transvestites and “good booty” and the next, upon hearing the news of Sputnik, hurling his jewelry into Sydney Harbor and going back to the church. So was (and is) the great Al Green: recording songs that were the soundtrack for half the seductions of the Sixties, and then, upon being assaulted by a woman armed with hot grits, going back to gospel.
Some never seemed to find a home, no matter how great their genius, and ended their lives in madhouses (like Buddy Bolden) or crawling on their hands-and-knees, barking like a dog, like Robert Johnson, the Tupac of his day (see Elijah Wald’s great Escaping the Delta for a radical and brilliant re-visioning of who Robert was and where he was trying to go before he was poisoned).
But the greatest of all these—greater even than Patton, his role model, and Robert Johnson, his disciple— was Son House, who was both a hellfire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher and the greatest, most ferocious, and most transported of all the bluesmen. Robert was afraid of him, and one of the seminal stories in the Johnson mythos is of the young aspirant showing up to Son’s juke-joint gigs, wanting to sit in on harmonica, and being chased out of the joint by Son and Willie Brown (who Robert name-checks in Crossroads Blues).
Son House was born two miles outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi around 1902 (he claimed to have been born in 1886, but that may well have been purely so he could claim to be as senior as the Delta legend and reigning champion bluesman Charlie Patton). He was a Baptist preacher from the age of 15, but, by his own account, he liked the bluesman's lifestyle too much. He recorded for Paramount in the 1930s and for the notorious Alan Lomax in the early ‘40s. He was one of the original Delta bluesmen who was “rediscovered” (a peculiar term--did they not know where they themselves were?) in 1964 by blues revivalists Nick Perl, Phil Spiro, and Dick Waterman. (There's a beautiful account of this in Eric von Schmidt's fantastic Baby Let Me Follow You Down, topic of a future "100 Greats" post).
Yes, Son was the greatest of them all—and maybe the most conflicted. There was nothing more powerful in the Delta than Jesus and the music (Son's a cappella version of John the Revelator is the scariest version of Revelations I've ever heard)—and that’s why the overseers at Parchman Farm (the notorious prison farm where Son, like so many bluesmen, did time) kept a close watch on both. That there was no-one among the bluesmen more powerful or more intense than Son, was because, I’m convinced, he really did believe that playing the blues was his one-way ticket to hell. He wasn't playing around: he knew he was damned.
And that’s what gave his music such intensity: here was this courtly, soft-spoken old man in a starched white shirt and a string tie, with the gaze-averted, careful manner that Delta blacks learned to use with white folks, sitting on the soundstage of a German TV studio with a National steel guitar on his lap. And he says, quietly and but with absolute conviction, “the blues is not what these young people think it is.” And then he sighs, and flexes his left-hand fingers with the slide, and hunches his body, and simply explodes, as he howls the opening lines of Death Letter Blues:
I got a letter this morning/ How do you reckon it read
Said ‘Hurry hurry, the gal you love is dead.’
And that spooky midnight Delta boundary place is right there, in the cold sterile black-and-white set of a German television studio. It’s in the way his body rocks back and forth as he stomps his feet, the way his right-hand (a sharecropper’s powerful hand) flails at the strings as if he’s going to tear them right off the guitar. It's the Crossroads, between heaven and hell, between life and death, between joy and grief. It’s that place to which some of the greatest, some of the darkest, and some of the most transcendent musicians can go, sometimes in the most banal of circumstances.
I once met an old Azeri accordion player who’d lost half his jaw to cancer and who couldn’t speak English who did it within the first couple of notes he played in a Midwestern radio studio. He sat down in a swivel chair in front of a microphone, waited for a nod, stretched out the bellows, and he was gone, from the first chord. During the tri-lingual interview afterward, he calmly chain-smoked the cigarettes his handlers complained he had been forbidden. And then, when it was time to play again, he went away again--within a few seconds.
That liminal space was in the darkness, the suffering, the history, the sounds, the funk of the Mississippi Delta, the dark damp place which had been a primordial jungle which was only carved into farms when white trash from the Southern Appalachians had realized they could push west, stake land claims, and, in a couple of generations, set themselves up as ‘aristocracy’—but would have to brutalize their slaves worse than anywhere else in the Americas in order to do it. It's in the work-songs and blues, stomps and spirituals, that Delta blacks created in order to cope. It’s in those musics' sense of long dark nights in slave-quarters and sharecroppers cabins and filthy lumber camps, with only the skeeters and fireflies, and the old, old stories of the Orishas and their
That music told the truth: in the Delta, you best watch yourself at the crossroads, and you best believe it when a woman warned you not to cross her, and you best believe in the tricks and the charms of High John de Conqueroo and the Mojo Hand that had come to the South with the vodun religion of Haitian refugees, and you best believe that if you played the blues on Saturday night you best pray for your soul on Sunday morning. In that place, and that time, and that society—you really could go to hell for playing the wrong music.
But, if you were Charlie Patton, or Muddy Waters, or Bill Broonzy, you might even decide that, compared to your present situation, neither Hell nor the Devil seemed like such a fearsome proposition. And you might shake hands with Mr Scratch by-and-by--if it meant you could hitch a ride out.
That was the place in between, the place that Son House knew, and knew enough both to fear and to exult in—the place where joy and grief meet, which is where art begins. Art results from the transmutation of suffering, through effort, into beauty. And that's why the blues is beautiful--not pretty. Like life.
Sunday, September 17, 2006
...is build things.
Had an old friend here over this past weekend, a fine fiddler from a town much higher on the horizon than ours: bills itself as the World Capitol of Live Music (and, taken objectively, they're pretty much entitled), recognizes that live music is their most powerful export and importer of tourists, and so on. Heck, even their airport baggage handlers are deferential to musicians.
Whereas we live in a distant, (mentally and physically) isolated place, the reddest county in a red state, the place Der Leader referenced when he said "I want these position papers to be so simple even the boys in [this place] will understand them," the Buckle of the Bible Belt. Great tradition for birthing songwriters and musicians, all of whom left as soon as they possibly fuckin' could.
When Dharmonia and I moved here about 6 years back, I was coming from a place where the traditional music was top-notch: national champions, an excellent (if ego-ridden) local world music festival, clubs/pubs/sessions, set-dancing, you name it. I moved here and found a half-dozen people sight-reading folk-song melodies out of loose-leaf binders. Needless to say, my heart sank.
But, it was a good job, with great colleagues and FANTASTIC students. And we took it. And, astonishingly, the administration basically gave me a free hand, saying, both literally and by implication: "we want you to re-build this department." And, even more shockingly, not only did they say they wanted me to do it--they helped me do it. They found me funds, and donors, and connections, and a title, and an Institute, and so on and so forth. Part of that assistance came in the realm of letting me define the widest possible range of projects as part of "research and creative activity."
So we set to work, with a slow session, and a pub session, and eventually a radio program, a Christmas fundraising concert, and now--most recently--a festival and an endowed traditional music scholarship.
So my fiddler friend came up from World Capitol of Live Music, and she had a good time: a workshop on Breton music-and-dance, a big "all-stars" concert, a late-night cabaret-feature concert, a concert of new and traditional dances. On the Sunday, when we were all done and it had all worked, she was packed and we were ready to head to the airport (one advantage of the boonies: the airport's 12 minutes from our house and it takes about 7 minutes to clear security). She said, "hey, when's the next time I can come back? This place is fun." We talked about a timetable, and then she said "I always tell everybody down there about these guys up here who've built this Irish music scene."
I laughed, and said "Yeah...brick by fucking brick." She agreed, and repeated, "Yeah, I tell them that, and they never believe it, but it's really true: brick by fucking brick."
Every human endeavor of any value, meaning, and longevity has been built brick by brick, usually by large numbers of anonymous people working, not for their own benefit, but that of their kids, and their grand-kids, and the benefit of everybody's and anybody's grandkids. Literature, social justice movements, art, tradition, earth knowledge, planting cycles, ways of communicating across boundaries, how to raise kids: all of those crucial knowledges have been built brick by brick, over centuries, by millions of anonymous people working to make the world a little better. I think of it when I see the Mexican guys around town roofing houses from "kin (see) 'til cain't (see)" on Sundays to make overtime pay so they can send their kids into my freshman music classes. When I walk into the auto-parts store to hear the counterman conversing effortlessly with two Spanish faculty members about Jaguar parts before he turns to me and asks, with the West Texas twang, "how kin ah help?" When my freshmen fall asleep in their morning classes because they've been working 10pm-6am stocking shelves at the local supermarket to make the money to put themselves through school to become high-school band directors and choral conductors, so they can help other kids boot-strap themselves up the economic ladder in turn (and, let's just comment in passing, it's in the immigrant communities that you find the truest, deepest, most generous support for arts in the schools).
It also reminds me of my wife's grandfather, who came over from Italy as an illiterate 14-year-old, speaking no English, with a painstakingly hand-lettered sign around his neck giving the target address of his relatives' friends in Western Massachusetts. He and Nonni raised 4 kids on a stonemason's wages, through the most ferocious government neglect of the Great Depression, and lost two mortgaged houses to bank failures and unemployment. Finally, Nonno got fed up with counting on banks and bankers, went out into the back-yard of the plot of land they owned, and started digging up clay. And he and his sons shaped and fired the bricks--brick by fuckin' brick--for another house. And he and Nonni built that house, and finished raising their kids, and lived in that house the rest of their lives.
I met Nonno there, when I started dating Dharmonia. By then, he'd had several (only belatedly diagnosed) strokes, and couldn't do much except sit in his Barcalounger and scowl at daytime TV (he was so tough--all five-foot-four of him--that after his first stroke, he'd show up on job-sites, and his sons would have to hide his mason's hammer from him to keep him from clambering up ladders onto roofs to help lay up stone for the beautiful chimneys that were the family's speciality). Nonni was in her kitchen (five feet all and not much less than that wide, but with snow-white hair and the china-blue eyes that her Tuscan relatives recognized years later in Dharmonia) chattering in Italian with her neighbor-lady friends, and pressing Amaretto cookies and lemon pie on us (into her nineties, she cooked her specialities at home, and Dharmonia and I would hoard the occasional care package of her hand-made capaletti in the freezer for months at a time), but Papa stayed in the living room.
Eventually the chatter was too much for his curiosity, and he sidled into the kitchen, leaning hard on his cane, because one arm and one leg didn't work very well. He looked sidelong up at me (I was at least 12 inches taller), and then began nudging one of Nonni's friends, chuckling and mumbling something to her in Italian--by then, he'd forgotten most any of the English he had known. The ladies began chuckling and whispering to each other, peeking to see if Dharmo or I understood what Papa was saying, before Nonni whacked him on the arm and told him Basta! (I understood that one, at least). Finally she whispered something to Dharmo, who in turn began giggling but wouldn't tell me what she'd said.
As we were pulling out of the driveway in the car, after accepting yet another serving of lemon pie and Amaretto liquer (one thing those old Italians definitely understood was how to mix sweet and sour), I asked Dharmo "What the hell was that all about?" She laughed and told me that when Papa finally had shuffled into the kitchen (where all important business in an old Italian family was conducted), he'd been nudging Zia and saying "É piccolo, huh?" ("He's little, huh?") (I don't know what it was about Dharmonia's dad's family, but they all seemed to feel obligated to comment on my size: her dad's version, when we drove away after the obligatory "meet-the-girlfriend's-parents-for-the-first-time" visit, was basically the same thing: "Big sonuvabitch, isn't he?").
When Dharmonia told me Nonno's comment, we laughed together. But 27 or 28 years later, with Nonno, and Nonni, and even their boy Leo--Dharmo's dad--gone, I am struck by my fiddler friend's comment about "brick-by-brick." If what I do has even an iota of the longevity, beauty, and practical enduring human value of the chimneys and planters and brick walls those men laid up--in the fiercest, economically coldest, most ethnocentric environments imaginable, much tougher than anything I've ever faced--then I'll regard it as an honor to be grouped with them.
That in mind, here's a poem I wrote a couple of years back, taking off from Isaac Newton's admirably humble "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
This poem is dedicated with admiration and love to the memory of Giuseppi Mariani--Papa Joe--and all the millions of other tough, brave little men and women who came to a new, foreign place (and continue to do so) and worked their whole lives to create a better life for their--and all--children. Grazie, Molte grazie, Papa.
If I stand on the shoulders of giants
If I stand on the shoulders of giants,
then they are modest giants:
small men in black suits;
or stooped in the bog,
cutting turf into clamps,
cupping unfiltered cigarettes
against the damp wind;
or curling callused fingers around cups of tea,
and pitchblack pints of porter,
as the flames roll over the turf,
and the chat ranges the centuries,
and the tunes rise like tendrils of smoke behind us.
Thursday, September 14, 2006
You scored as Finland. Your army is the army of Finland. You prefer to win your enemy by your wit rather than superior weapons. Enemy will have a hard time against your small but effective force.
British and the Commonwealth
France, Free French and the Resistance
In which World War 2 army you should have fought?
created with QuizFarm.com
Posted by CJS at 1:45 PM
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
[Reporting on Sep 12 because I was fucked if I was going to grandstand/blog on the day, and because the kids expect us to say something]:
I don't know where you were five years ago today at about this time, but I'm sure you remember. I was here--in this class, as a matter of fact. Let's all take a minute to reflect on ways to use our time together to work toward a world in which things like airplanes flying into Twin Towers don't have to happen anymore.
Because producer/author/former cop-beat reporter David Simon says:
Hear that, Chimpie? The man who "was born on third base and thought he hit a home run"? You and your whole bullshit God-fearin' money-grubbin' class are guilty in Bawlmer--and New Orleans--and Compton--and Roxbury--just as much as you are in Fallujah and Kabul.
The new season fits into a plan that was decided upon during the filming of season one, back in 2001. "The first season was about the inherent cost of being an individual in any modern institution," Simon says.
"Whoever you were in Baltimore, you were getting fucked. The second season was to describe the death of work. The third season was to show what happens to reform and reformers and to examine the whole nature of why policy never changes."
"And this season is to take argument with those who feel that if you're born without privilege, but make the right set of choices, that you will be spared. To do away with that bit of national mythology."
Adds [former Bawlmer cop and public-school teacher Ed] Burns: "When you watch The Wire, don't begin to think you've seen the worst of what's going on with these kids. What's going on here is a crime against humanity."
[nb: "100 Greats" will return--we just got slammed at the beginning of the semester, and "100 Greats" essays take some effort and some emotional concentration--in short supply around here just now. Soon, though.]
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Here's an example of true radical pedagogy: a slate of college-level humanities courses (for college credit), offered for free to low-income persons:
The class enrolls 25 to 30 students, recruited from the Champaign-Urbana community and surrounding areas. Prospective students must meet the following criteria: they must live at 150% of the poverty level or lower, be 17 years of age or older, be able to read an English-language newspaper, and, in interviews with the project coordinator, demonstrate a desire to complete the course...Wow! Talk about inspiring! Talk about turning the "college as corporate supermarket" model on its head!
The course is offered free of charge; there is no tuition fee, and books, transportation vouchers, and child care (at the Douglass Community Center, adjacent to the library) will be made available to all students. Students who complete the course will be eligible for six hours of college credit from Bard College; these general humanities credits are transferable to other two- or four-year colleges.
I've done something similar to this, teaching participatory music skills at a free, weekly 2-hour session, since about 1992, but I never thought anybody would be able to talk upper-administration into granting credit. Talk about getting the wheels turning...
Prediction: those students who stick with the course will be some of the most responsive (and responsible) students thos faculty have ever faced.
Sunday, September 03, 2006
I remember a snotty little punk with streaked hair and absolutely horrific manners (and nowhere near as good as he and his asshole father thought he was).
What I saw today for the last time (on a championship court, anyway), was a man who absolutely transformed himself. Most child athletic stars start out as jerks and get worse--almost none of them become better people.
But Andre did: he started out as a spoiled punk, and somehow, under the arc-light glare of the celebrity tennis circuit, he has made himself into a wise, courageous, generous old man.
Samson lost his greatness when he lost his hair. Andre gained his.
His press-conference after falling to Becker was one of the most amazingly sane public speeches I've ever heard from a professional athlete. Coming from the man who grew from that snotty punk, it was an astonishing rebirth.
A courageous gentleman, indeed.
Posted by CJS at 7:00 PM
I could be a self-righteous son-of-a-bitch when I was young (now I’m probably just a son-of-a-bitch, full stop). Growing up in the dead-boring, striving-to-be-middle-class suburban bedroom community I did, there wasn’t much in the way of live music. They cut the music programs in my high school before I got there: this was in the days before middle-class parents had become convinced that extra-curricular activities (don’t call ‘em avocations, anymore—parents mandate them for their kids) would help them aim their 13-year-olds more surely at top schools. Back in the early ‘70s, the conviction was that top grades in hard sciences was what got kids into Ivy Schools and that money spent on anything else was wasted cash. I wasn’t facilitated by being the second Coyote offspring to go through my home-town’s public schools: my brilliant elder brother (too smart for just about any room he’s in) had blazed through them five years before, just prior to winning a full ride to Harvard at 16, after taking a year in Europe where he wound up as translator and part-time comptroller at American Express in Amsterdam. So I always got the pleased-and-relieved reaction from lady teachers, “Oh, you’re David’s brother!”
But I started finding my way a little bit in the folk coffeehouses that still sprang up like dandelions after rain around the North Shore of Massachusetts. A lot of these places were run by people who’d either experienced the great Sixties Folk Revival in Boston/Cambridge (documented in Eric von Schmidt’s masterpiece chronicle Baby Let Me Follow You Down), or by people who’d just missed the boat by being too young. I didn’t have other experience of live music—never was a band rat, never played in a junior high garage band, only went to a few rock ‘n’ roll parties—so I took my cues from the vibe of the coffeehouses. Which was, more or less, hushed, reverent, and—let’s face it—pretty well precious and holier- (or “folkier”) than-thou.
A coffeehouse was actually a pretty good place to play music: the musicians loved these clubs, because people didn’t smoke or drink and they would shut the fuck up while the music was on; the shows started and ended reasonably early (and you didn’t have to load out through a garbage-stinking service entrance at 2:00 in the morning). It was a little weird to listen to greats like Martin Grosswendt, Geoff Bartley, Paul Rishell, and Paul Geremia play the country blues in the parish hall of an Episcopal church, but the musicians liked playing there.
On the other hand, it wasn’t the greatest place to learn to hear music, if only because it gave you (OK, “it gave me”) some pretty rigid ideas about what were and weren’t acceptable behaviors around the music. I was there to listen, and, like all the other natural-fibered older folks around me in the coffeehouse audience, I expected a certain reverence about other folks’ listening behavior.
All of which goes to mean that I was a self-righteous son-of-a-bitch in a music bar. I would shush anybody, even the scary-looking biker guys and failed poets who hung out in the back room of the legendary Idler, a bar on the southwest edge of
But even though I was a snot, it was my favorite place to listen to the solo guitar virtuosity of my hero, the Zatoichi of the guitar, Dean Magraw. He’d come out from the Twin Cities to study at Berklee, and like so many others, had quickly realized that the place was more adept at churning out carbon-copy studio players (and at charging them outrageous tuition) than fostering original creativity. He wound up playing the folk and jazz clubs of the area and teaching widely.
Dean—I realize now—was only about eight years older than I at the time, but he was such an astonishing virtuoso, his style an ungodly blend of Norman Blake and Doc Watson’s flatpicking prowess, the funk of Charles Mingus and the country blues, and the modal and harmonic sophistication of bebop and Indian classical music, that he seemed light-years ahead of me. He played the widest possible diversity of tunes, from the aforementioned Mingus and McCoy Tyner, Ravi Shankar and Roland Kirk, Doc’s and Norman’s and his own tunes, and his technique was amazing. He might have been the first musician I’d ever met who could truly play anything he heard.
When a musician gets to that place—when the physical technique, and the kinesthetic connection between the ear (inner or outer) and the fingers is as immediate as the hearing itself—a lot falls away. The battles fought with the instrument and the ear fall away, and the difference between a good gig and a great one comes down to the degree to which the player can enter a zone of relaxation, comfort, and confidence—because that’s when the ideas flow. Dean might also have been the first player I’d ever seen enter that zone—that place where the ideas flow unchecked. Late at night, when the people there were listening rather than talking, and it was quiet enough that the PA was behaving, and he’d maybe had a little bit of the smoke, he felt comfortable experimenting, and the music that flowed out of that was absolutely transcendent.
I don’t know if I was his most frequent listener, following him around to the little folk and jazz clubs he played, but I might give myself credit for being his best listener.
He played with Chicago-born accordion and concertina virtuoso John Williams—and buried Williams, and plays widely around his native
I was later blessed to work alongside Dean at the late and much-lamented guitar workshop, a magical place at which the owners—though in the end they proved to be piss-poor and unethical business managers—had an incomparable ability to recruit brilliant and compatible personalities. I took every class he taught and practiced every exercise he gave me (and still use some in my own teaching), and hoped that someday I’d be able to get within some kind of hollering distance of his chops, ears, imagination, and, most of all, his freedom. Tibbetts put it, “It’s guitar, but it’s so liquid, lyrical, and effortless, that it’s like listening to a dancer.” When it was late enough, and quiet enough, and friendly enough, and he was relaxed (one way or another) enough, he would just go somewhere, and we would be lucky enough, maybe, to go partway there with him.
He played a lot of things, and I loved a lot of his arrangements (he had a version of McCoy Tyner’s Passion Dance was just heartbreaking), and his versions of old bluegrass tunes were equally good: he wasn’t a conventionally “good” singer, but he loved things like Norman’s Church Street Blues so much that it didn’t matter.
I heard a lot of the blues players in the Boston/Cambridge folk revival, and noticed pretty early on that there was a range of concepts of what you did with the blues. There were the literalist quasi-musicologists—who knew all the details and the matrix numbers and the alternate takes, and could sometimes play gorgeous, 78-perfect versions of the originals. There were the poseurs—who tended to dress self-consciously for the stage, and for some reason seemed to think that a crucial hat was what would make them seem cool. There were the inhabitors—who got so deeply into the music that they could play the old tunes with total unself-consciousness, and could “go to” the place people like Blind Willie Johnson did: Martin Grosswendt was like that; so was Paul Rishell. There were the hipsters—who made everything they played work beautifully within a kind of uptown idiom: Geoff Bartley’s fantastic, sexy version of Chuck Berry’s Maybelline comes to mind. If I fell into any camp, it was probably a trap: the trap that you had to play your version of this or that Exactly Like The Record—if only to show everybody else that you had the chops and ears to figure it out. I never really go to where I inhabited the music that way.
But then there were the ones who owere just free—sho seemed to hear it all like One Big Music, who had worked so hard, for so long, that they could check their egos at the door, knowing that what they mostly needed to do was simply to get out of the way, and let the music flow through them. Dean was like that. His versions of tunes were deeply his own, and sometimes bore only passing resemblance to their originals. But he managed to find another kind of beauty in each of them.
My favorite tune of Dean’s was his version of Blind Willie McTell’s Statesboro Blues. It’s a tune that had been covered and re-covered throughout the Folk and Blues revivals: Taj Mahal had done a fantastic semi-acoustic version with Jesse Ed Davis, the Allman Brothers had produced maybe the definitive electric version (captured most memorably on Live at Fillmore East), and Willie’s own original—high-pitched, whiney vocal; fingerpicked 12-string guitar approximately the size of a church organ; absolutely magnificent—is nothing to sneeze at. Most everybody who played it paid at least homage to one of those versions: even the Allmans’ stop-time version took off from Taj’s earlier shuffle settings, and most of the folkies I heard copped Willie’s 12-string partner.
Dean went somewhere else with it. He borrowed Willie’s dropped-D tuning, but beyond that, everything in his version changed: the groove (from a shuffle to a more bluegrassy straight-8ths), the technique (from fingerpicking to flatpicking), and the tonality: from bluesy sevenths to lovely, simple, diatonic triads.
But even greater than all of these lovely—and, given the canonic nature of Willie’s original and all the versions—daring changes, was what he added: a stunning, simple, eloquent D-triad-to-G/B riff, tumbling down the to the low strings. It was the one Dean lick I learned first, and the one I loved best, and the feeling it created in me when I heard it, and when it cycled around again in the tune, was the one that, for decades later, was the feeling I wanted to hear in my own music.
It wasn’t until almost two decades later that I found my way to the olace of freedom that I was hearing in Dean’s music—when I stopped trying to play everything, and, with the assistance of some wise musical elders, and one youngster with wisdom beyond her years (at least about me), decided to have a go at doing one thing well. I finally accepted I couldn’t do what Dean did—but I might be able to light out for the territory he had mapped before me. For 10 years at least after that, I carried around badly-recorded analog cassettes of those shows, playing them over the sound systems of the bookstores or restaurant kitchens I worked in, until they literally frayed into tatters or were lost in various moves.
There’s another thing that Dean showed me, years before I understood what it was, or why it was so powerful, or how much I wanted to find it in myself and my own music. And it’s a hard thing to talk about, in the typically-macho world of jazz, blues, and, shit, even of Irish music. But it’s a true, real, and important thing. It’s about love.
I wasn’t exactly a disciple, but, as I say, I was probably about the best listener Dean had. And I would always look forward to that moment in the evening, when it was quiet or intimate or relaxed or high enough—usually in the back room of the Idler—when he’d play the Statesboro Blues. I knew and loved all the other versions, but there was something about Dean’s—its beauty, originality, simplicity, eloquence, or things I couldn’t even name—that outstripped them all for me. I’d wait to hear that beautiful opening riff, because I knew the feeling it created; I knew how I felt while he played it. And I came to believe that he understood that.
One night at the Idler, when Dharmonia was occupied elsewhere, I’d trekked down from
I’ve spoken before in these pages about love: of the musician for the music, of the teacher for the student, of the listener for the player. Finally, most privately, riskily, and eloquently, Dean Magraw and his Statesboro Blues taught me about the sacred love of the musician for the listener: about why many musics—no matter how earthly—because of this capacity, are “sacred” musics. Because of the emotions whose creation and communication those musics make possible. Because they enable musicians (who are, let’s face it, not necessarily some of the nicest or most communicative people in the world) to express love.
Dean Magraw’s music showed me the possibility of love within that sacred space. Beyond these limited words, I can’t describe it—but this record will take you there.
I’m an energy junkie: I like building, using it, consolidating it, maximizing it, getting messy with it. If the work of an artist is to make something new out of existing possibilities, then the work of the teacher is to make something new out of existing personalities.
When I walk into a classroom of 100+ kids—who, perhaps for the first time, are not being hovered-over by parents concerned about getting them into college (too late for that now, mom ‘n’ dad) or teachers concerned about guaranteeing (usually in marginally-ethical ways) that the little darlins’ excel on the standardized tests so that the school doesn’t lose its “No [white, middle- to upper-class, offspring of parents who might be persuaded to fall for the bullshit fulminations of “compassionate conservatives” one more time] Child Left Behind” funding—which would mean that the public school teachers would have to do still more impossible work on still less funding—that’s my métier. I wanna get in there and start working with that energy.
I don’t care whether it’s positive or negative, present or absent, latent nascent or intrinsic—I’ll find it, and I’ll build it, and I’ll send the little darlins out into the world as stronger, smarter, tougher, braver, more independent people.
That’s my job.
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Originated in a response to a post on Taegan Goddard's terrific Political Wire.
A few by my hero, Ross Thomas (public relations specialist, reporter, union spokesman, political consultant, eventually author of political thrillers: Wikipedia entry here):
The Seersucker Whipsaw (1967): fantastic novel, told from the perspective of an ex-reporter-turned-political-writer, who accompanies Democratic political consultant and New Orleans Creole Clinton Shartelle to a thinly-disguised Nigeria, where they are to honcho the election campaign of a candidate in the newly-independent nation's first elections. Fantastically cynical, very well-informed, Shartelle is the coolest political operative ever, and it turns out he's an ex-Wobbly.
The Fools in Town are on Our Side (1970): protagonist gets out of a Hong Kong jail after having been imprisoned without trial on a failed espionage charge and is recruited by a group of sociopathic political operatives who have been hired to so-far-destroy the infrastructure of an anonymous Mason-Dixon Line ciity (OK City, maybe) that the voters will hire the same sociopaths to build a political machine. Story cuts back-and-forth between this plot and the protagonist's recollections of growing up, the orphaned son of a Protestant Missionary, in a Shanghai whorehouse just after the Japanese occupation.
The Porkchoppers (1972): Very dark and pessimistic account of a campaign for union presidency between a very-long-in-office alcoholic president (and failed actor) and his psychopathic challenger. Wonderful collection of misfits and crippled personalities running the campaigns on each side.
Missionary Stew (1983): This, with "Seersucker Whipsaw", is my favorite Ross Thomas. Morgan Citron, a travel writer, is releaseed from a Central African (maybe Angolan?) dungeon by Amnesty International shortly after having discovered he may have unwittingly participated in cannibalism (when he and his cellmates were fed a stew of "mystery meat"). He is hired by the campaign fundraiser of a young, Jerry Brown-style California governor-elect, to follow up on rumors of a "private war" fought in a Central African republic, when agents of two different USA covert agencies mistakenly shot it out with each other over a failed drug deal.
This are only a few. Equally great are "Ah! Treachery" and "Twilight at Matt's Place", both starring Thomas's recurrent hero-duo of saloon owner Mac McCorkle and his partner, the ex-OSS assassin Michael Padillo, and the series of novels starring his con-men-with-a-heart-of-gold, Artie Wu (the Pretender to the throne of China) and Quincy Durant (who carries scars on his back from torture in a Cambodian prison): "Chinaman's Chance" (sleazeball Southern California politics), "Out on the Rim" (fantastic double-double-cross plot attempting to bribe an overage Filipino guerrila out of the hills and thus reinstate the Marcos regime), and "Voodoo Ltd" (more California skullduggery).
Thomas made his first authorial success writing Westerns and crime potboilers (not unlike another great American political writer, Elmore Leonard), but the best of his stuff is cynical, very well informed about Washington's nefariousness (hints that he had info on CIA misadventures around the world, including both El Salvador and the Kennedy assassination), and hilarious to boot.
My top four, and the first four I'd recommend, would be "Whipsaw," "Missionary Stew," (for their locales and colorful major and minor characters), and "Treachery" and "Out on the Rim" (for the great antiheros Edd Partain, and Wu/Durant).
Posted by CJS at 5:09 PM
...than I said he was.
"I believe it will become clear that this investigation was inspired by partisan divisions."Tomlinson's response after being named in an investigation for having, get this, run a horse-racing operation out of his office.
Jeezus! Maybe public radio should make book instead of doing fund-raising! All the Repugnicans are doin' it!
Posted by CJS at 4:31 PM
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Don't insult my intelligence, Don.
Posted by CJS at 9:29 PM
Monday, August 28, 2006
Of course, you knew that already, but perhaps you hadn't run across this priceless morsel: Seaneen taking aim at higher education:
Kids are indoctrinated. They’re a captive audience. What can be done to remove these professors with these radical ideas from campus?You're right, Sean. They're indoctrinated--before they ever get to college--with mom 'n' dad's and the mass media's and Paris Hilton's and Nick Lachey's and their religious-leader-of-choice's and their peer group's and their sports team's and their MySpace Friends' and the "Kool Kidz's" and their sports coaches' and their band director's idea of what's important.
And they are a captive audience: mom 'n' dad are shelling out a helluva lot of money (which they can probably afford much less than you, pipsqueak) for us to jam as much ability-to-function-in-the-world into their little darlings, many of whom have been kept remarkably childish and naive about that world. And mom 'n' dad damned sure want their money's worth, as they are never tired of telling us.
Our job as college educators--and this is what you really hate us for--is in fact to remove the indoctrination: to remove the "teaching to the test" and the "infinite do-overs" and the "I blew off all the exams--what extra credit work can I do to make an A" and the "but you have to pass me or I won't get Med School" (and do you want a kid with this poor a sense of discipline operating on you?!?) and the "my fifth grandmother died" and the "my alarm didn't go off" and the "my parents booked the plane tickets for me to come home on Thanksgiving and my flight leaves 8 days beforehand" and the "but I didn't kknow that plagiarism was wrong" and the "all fags are evil" and the "all Muslims are terrorists" and the "I've never met anybody homosexual--they'd gross me out" et cetera ad nauseum.
Our job is to remove all that. Our job is to say, as the great Zen teacher Suzuku Roshi said:
"Think for yourself."
And you guys hate that--because if we reach a whole nation of young adults who truly do think for themselves, you fuckers are going to jail, the poorhouse, and the unemployment office. Have a nice time!
We will win.
Posted by CJS at 2:19 PM
Saturday, August 26, 2006
There’s a term in Sufi theology which I’ve used in a past post: the fakir, the “God-intoxicated man,” the man who is so drunk with the beauty and mystery of God’s love that he has stepped outside the conventions of polite and prosaic reality. Shams-i-Tabriz, the wandering mystic who was Jellaludin Rumi’s muse and “spiritual friend,” and who was eventually murdered by followers of Rumi jealous of Shams’s influence over him, was one of these; Saint Francis of Assisi, who tore off his clothes, giving them to the poor, and ran through the streets of Florence singing (and who may have encountered Sufis during an imprisonment in Syria); Hildegard of Bingen, who in the midst of hallucinatory migraine experiences heard the songs of God, and who transformed medieval conceptions of Woman’s capacities; and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the endlessly-difficult, infinitely-compassionate holder of the Nyingma “Crazy Wisdom” lineage who would throw himself off staircases to test his students’ readiness.
I’ve never seen him jump off a staircase or run naked through the streets, but I believe that Robin Williamson would do that, and things yet crazier, if he thought they would lead to poetry. Born in Scotland during World War II, and growing up, as he says on this record, “in the knee-high 1940s, and the waist-high 1950s,” Williamson was, with partners Clive Palmer and Mike Heron, part of the Edinburgh fringe of the great Skiffle craze, when British youngsters heard the earliest folk recordings from the American folk revival and created their own, slightly-bent, version of that American folk music. It was music heard at one and performed at two removes: first, removal from the rural and southern American contexts in which it originated and filtered through the urban college white-bread sensibilities of Tom Rush, Bob Dylan, and others; second, removed across the ocean and seen as infinitely more exotic by scruffy British Sixth-Formers.
By 1966 they had morphed, with the first faint whiffs of psychedelia, into the proto-hippie ensemble Incredible String Band, who over a series of whimsically-titled albums (Wee Tam and the Big Huge, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, Be Glad for the Song has No Ending), and with a cast of equally-whimsically-monikered associates (chiefly girlfriends-in-waiting Licorice and Rose), worked out a relatively acoustic and global-music-oriented approach to psychedelia. They were sort of impossibly inconsistent, capable one moment of transcendence and the next of noodly banality, but you could never fault their commitment or the breadth of their collective imagination. And it was a different time, when things which in hindsight seem pretty damned airy-fairy felt deeply personal, expressive, and, yes, courageous—at least, from within the experience. They played a huge wealth of instruments, sometimes with more enthusiasm than expertise, and blithely experimented with a huge range of writing, playing, and singing techniques (people mostly either love or hate Williamson’s quasi-Islamic-inflected singing, for example).
They split up in ’74, with Heron going off to try his hand at prog-rock, and Robin formed a San Francisco-based group he called his Merry Band, using harp, guitar/bouzouki, fiddle, and his own guitar/whistles/hammered-dulcimer/kitchen sink. And it’s here, in my opinion, that his writing really came into its own, most notably on the astonishing A Glint at the Kindling (a quote from Yeats).
That’s probably roughly the same time that my old friend Kevin Skorupa met him. Kevin, who’d grown up in a Polish family in Jersey, had encountered Williamson’s music some time in the early ‘70s, pre-Merry Band, and had struck up a correspondence with him (how many Polish teenagers from Jersey did Williamson have in his fan base, after all?). It was under Williamson’s influence that Kevin acquired a Sobell cittern and had started playing and singing traditional music. When I met him, through my brother-in-music Larry Young, Kevin was playing music in the subways of
You wouldn’t know it to listen to the (now-multiple) MTV generations, but “originality” is not equal to “different from everyone else.” Watch MTV-U (voluntarily or involuntarily), and you see a bunch of weedy kids who are trying so desperately to be “original” that they all wind up sounding the same. You can so admire and study a musician that you take on bits of his or her verbal, facial, or physical characteristics: Bird tried to borrow not only Lester Young’s style but also his vocal mannerisms (though he couldn’t really pull it off), David Papezian borrowed fiddler James Kelly’s characteristics, Dharmonia can tell when I’m talking overseas to Ireland on the phone. And almost all of us, if we sing, sing like our heroes. Kevin had studied Williamson’s music, he was so much an admirer, Williamson had been such an important mentor, that Kevin really could cop his style. Even when we spoke on the phone, though he retained the
As for Williamson, he truly is a true god-intoxicated man, deeply influenced by the really-very-weird but compelling poetics of the great (and loony) Robert Graves, author of both I, Claudius (a fantastic historical novel), and the endlessly-abstruse-yet-engrossing The White Goddess, the latter, in Graves’s own words, “a historical grammar of poetic myth.” What Graves did in this book—composed, he claimed, in a weeks-long poetic trance—is to weave together a wealth of at-that-time-unexamined information about pre-Christian Celtic society (poetic and nature languages, symbolism, and magic concepts), about the working poet’s own psychological processes, and the “secret history” of nature worship in the post-Christian era. It sounds insanely disorganized—and it is pretty darned idiosyncratic—and its scholarship is pretty much non-existent. But as a piece of poetic myth-making, as opposed to myth analysis, it is masterful, and deeply engrossing.
Glint at the Kindling is full of Williamson’s own Gravesian approaches to ballad and lyric poetry, and it’s absolutely masterful. There is beautiful instrumental music (the Boyhood of Henry Morgan/Pooka set), much of it featuring the great harpist Sylvia woods (The Road the Gypsies Go), beautiful (and often very sad) lyric song (By Weary Well and Me and the Mad Girl), hilarious and rueful (Lough Foyle, to the tune of “Nancy’s Whiskey,” detailing his less-than-successful experience as a 14-year-old Army cadet in Ireland) or evocative personal autobiography (the wonderful reminiscence The Road the Gypsies Go), direct citations of The White Goddess (Williamson’s magnificent setting of Graves’s tree poetry in The Woodcutter’s Song), the epic poetic history of Britain Five Denials on Merlin’s Grave (a 20-mnute tour-de-force, which takes its title from the quintuple refrain “And I…will not…forget”), and, closest to my own heart, the grinning night-time winkery of The Poacher’s Song, which opens
“Wake up Jamey, strike a light
For while you were lying sleeping,
I’ve been up the water-side
All with the gaff and the lantern
But the bailiff he’s a restless man
And terrible light in sleeping
His dogs did bark, his guns did bang
Damn, but he had me running.”
It’s a piece of poetry-and-music which, in its grit, texture, sly peasant humor, and magnificent tune, epitomizes the success of Williamson’s goal of “writing new music within the tradition.”
I first saw Williamson when he split a bill with
Williamson came out after the intermission and sang one song played one harp tune, one whistle tune, and one pipes tune, and then told a 45-minute story (The Fisherman’s Son and the Gruagach of Tricks, I think), accompanied only by his own diatonic harp. And he held that audience in the palm of his hand. I had never seen a performer so totally, confidently, and mystically transfix an audience. But I believe because his music was offered in service to something bigger than himself.
Typically the reaction to a fakir by prosaic society is mystification, intimidation, or contempt. And, at some level, in the shadow world of Samsara in which we live and strive to reconnect with the divine, that makes sense: the fakir is not only not “playing with a full deck”—he’s playing with a different deck.
The story is that it was in heartbreak over the loss of his “spiritual friend” that Rumi began the outpouring of improvised lyric poetry—of spiritual loss, longing, and desire—that led to his staggering, forty-thousand-verse Diwan-e Shams-e Tabriz-i (the “Book of Shams of Tabriz”) and made him one of the greatest mystic poets of any time and any place. He is said to have left his home in
Robin Williamson taught me that.[And can I get a shout-out-in-the-comments for "100 Greats" post NUMBER FIFTY! It's taken more'n 50 days, but, shit, we're halfway there!]