Sunday, September 17, 2006

What we do... 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;

turning potatoes,

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.

--12.24.02, with acknowledgements to Henry Glassie’s Passing the Time in Ballymenone


lonesomepolecat said...

Man, you write like an angel. I can't believe I'm not paying for this stuff.

CJS said...

Aw, shucks. Thanks!

Banjosnake said...

I am reminded of a quote by one of the founding fathers... naturally I forget who - hell, I'd forget my own name and address these days with half a glass of wine in me - but anyway, something about how in a moment of revolutionary despair a colleague lamented about why the hell were they doing this? Being politicians? Our revolutionary said they were politicians so their sons could be doctors and lawyers so their grandsons could be artists and musicians. Or words to that effect.
I am a selfish bastard these days, and frankly, I only see it getting worse, but I can still recognize greatness in others and it is in you, my friend. You seem to have the focus and dedication and energy to build brick by fucking brick and still be a musician, too. My hat's off to you, amigo. Slainte.

Sarai said...

beautiful writing, powerful story.