Saturday, June 23, 2007

“100 Greats in 100 Days” # 057 and 058 (double entry): Mason Brown & Chipper Thompson, Am I Born to Die; Roger Landes, Dragon Reels

By 1998, I was a fucked-up mess. Nine years of therapy were starting to bear fruit, but, given that I was in graduate school at a conservatory notorious for its destruction of peoples’ psyches (more than one suicide a year and your administration should probably recognize that they are doing something wrong), and had been for 12 years, I was more treading water than making progress. I’d done a master’s degree and the coursework for two doctorates (actually, the coursework for two-and-a-half doctorates because this guy, disbelieving the validity of my candidacy, was doing everything he could to add coursework beyond the legal requirements), and I was within shooting distance of the finish line. But no-one survives graduate school without scars; that’s precisely why senior professors tend to pontificate reminisce through rose-colored hindsight about their own graduate work to miserable students—because it’s too painful to remember what it was actually like. I had only survived those years through the good offices of Dharmonia (who had her own graduate fish to fry), my revered therapist and brothers and sisters in music, and by repeating, like a mantra and on a daily basis, “If you can’t take it anymore, you can walk tomorrow. Just get through today.” After more than a decade of such emotional abuse and administrative road-blocking from a university notorious for its psychopathy, I had finally completed and passed the last of my doctoral exams.

That was also the year I met Roger Landes—and John Whelan, and Zan McLeod (three Desperate Gentlemen to be sure)—at a festival in Ohio. That’s where I saw John Whelan stride into a bar full of timid trad-music novices, Marlboro dangling, groupies in tow, and take over a pub session. He sat down, strapped into the box, and launched into a hyperdrive set of reels that must have lasted 20 minutes. He did it with such confidence, such certainty that he was serving the music rather than his own ego, that everybody in the bar recognized that same thing (there’s something about box-players and the degree to which the physics of their instruments demand that they stand behind the notes they play—there’s no way to hide on a box, the note is either full-on or full-off. I once saw Billy McComiskey take over a session in a rundown Irish pub in the Catskills with at least as bold certainty. Maybe it’s a New York Thing, too.). I learned the power and the confidence that chops can bring, that summer.

Anyway, Roger invited me to visit his inaugural Zoukfest music camp, so later that summer I got in a car with a back-deck full of instruments and drove west, across Indiana and Illinois and Missouri, to the banks of the Missouri and the first ZF home.

Weston was a pretty little town that was the original river landing on the Missouri for trappers, explorers, and settlers heading west. It had been a camp-site for Lewis & Clark in 1804 and beautifully evoked in its Gold Rush heyday in GM Fraser’s Flashman and the Redskins.

It’s also the site of the oldest brewery still functioning west of the Hudson, O’Malley’s, an 1842 building which was the original home-site for Zoukfest. It was an absolutely amazing building at the top of the main street that sloped, past white clapboard historic homes, down to the river: a modest timber structure above ground, but with three levels of stone cellars down below. You’d clamber down a flight of stone steps that would open into a beautifully barrel-arched cellar, built by slaves who were master-masons, and then down another flight into another cellar, and then down another flight into yet another cellar. It was absolutely magical—if moldy—and you could feel the shades of the slaves, trappers, brewers, Border guerillas, and stevedores who’d been there before you elbowing you aside as you went down the stairs or stepped up to the bar.

I was hired late, after the budget was already set, to come in mid-week and deliver a couple of lectures on “world-strings” for the bouzouki-fanatics. Roger kindly made me free of all the classes, and I stumbled around those few days, through the blazing heat and 90-percent humidity of the Midwest in July, almost overcome by both the meteorological and psychological intensity of what I was experiencing.

I sat in classes and the psycho-emotional competitive jungle in my own head made it almost impossible for me to even hear the brilliance and beauty of what was being conveyed, in words and music, by that first core community of teachers and guests. In that same week I met Chipper Thompson, Mason Brown, Steven Owsley Smith, Connie Dover, Gerald Trimble, Paddy League, Jean Denney, Stanley Greenthal, Joseph Sobol, Chris Grotewohl, and an extended cast of some of the most amazing and incredible musicians--and people--I had ever met. I was blessed beyond measure that I shut up just enough to restrain the sociopathy beaten into me over the previous decade, long enough to be able to experience the generosity and openness of that incredible cast of characters, and to be reminded of a way to experience community.

They were so kind, so talented, so open, so generous. It reminded me of a way of being a musician, an artist, and a member of an artistic family that I had almost forgotten—that I’d only previously known, 17 years before, at this place. I was so overwhelmed by the depth, kindness, and inspiration of the Weston experience that I had to leave after the closing night concert--I had to get back on the night-time roads by myself, just so I could begin to process the intensity and inspiration. I called Dharmonia at 4am from a truckstop outside Canton, raving to her about these people I had just met and the way they had reminded me of why I had first wanted to be a musician--because I wanted to be part of that kind of community.

They reminded me of the Guitar Workshop staff, who, as a 20-year-old, I had idolized and imitated. They were imaginative, endlessly creative, relentlessly individual. As musicians, they were overwhelmingly talented and idiosyncratic, curious about the world about them, and incredibly well-informed abut historical and artistic repertoires I barely recognized. After my twelve years of graduate school, these were people whose conversation, anecdotes, and off-color jokes humbled me with its erudition and creativity.

Also, many of them were also from the South or the West: foreign territory for me. Even after 12 years in Southern Indiana, which according to the linguists and geographers, and my own observation, is sociologically much more southern hill-country than mid-western plains, I still hadn’t had much contact with people who came from those very different places—I was “campus” and they were “townies” (or “cutters”: see Steve Tesich’s bathetic but nevertheless evocative portrait of Bloomington in Breaking Away). Sure, I had friends who had lived there a very long time, and lived in the “townie” west side, but they were still émigrés, and mostly hippies. And when I had contact with those locals who qualified as hillbillies, they were usually abusing their kids, neglecting their dogs, or threatening violence to my friends.

Growing up in the northern suburbs in a fairly radical household during Civil Rights and court-ordered busing, I had more-or-less been taught to believe the old, old canard about how it was only the South that suffered from racism, and that “people up North” weren’t like that. Like most of my generation, I didn’t know squat about what it was actually like to grow up poor, or intellectually curious, or skeptical, or creative, in the Deep South. And here I was in Weston, thrown in with a group of people who could have been Faulkner’s running buddies and down-home drinking companions, or characters from his stories. Or both.

These records remind me of them.

Roger’s Dragon Reels (there’s a bizarre and spooky story about the Dragon inlay on Roger’s SOS bouzouki, a surprise gift from Steve, and the simultaneous “coincidental” discovery that Rog’s own name was an anagram of the album title) came after 12 years in the trenches with his band Scartaglen of the 1980s North American “Celtic” touring circuit, during which they’d made some wonderful records that melded both the “American roots” and Irish-trad sides of their group personalities, but had also run up against something similar to what Dharmonia and I were encountering in Boston-Cambridge at roughly the same time: the fact that we loved the music, and worked hard to play it right, could not compensate for the fact that we were Americans playing “Celtic” music at a time when music audiences only believed “real Celts” could do it.

By the 1980s the bouzouki had made an effective entry and achieved a solid role in the worlds of “Celtic” musics, notably in the hands of seminal players like Johnny Moynihan (De Danann, Planxty), Donal Lunny (Planxty, the Bothy Band), Andy Irvine (Planxty, and solo), Ciaran Curran (Altan), Brian MacNeill (The Battlefield Band), and Dave Richardson (The Boys of the Lough), but the instrument was primarily accompanimental and contrapuntal. Having migrated from the world of eastern Mediterranean folk musics (Greek, Turkish, and Central Asian) and under many names, it was almost inevitable that it would be borrowed by “Celtic” musicians, as, of all the plectrum instruments (guitar, mandolin, banjo), it had the greatest harmonic-versus-melodic capacities and, arguably, the most beautiful and complex tone. First essays in use of the bouzouki as a lead instrument, however, had to await the Green Linnet records of Kansas City’s Gerald Trimble, a restless, roving intellect, but one who had early grasped the instrument’s melodic potential.

It was left to Roger Landes, a deeply focused, disciplined, methodical and (though he’d kill me for saying it) scholarly musical intellect; a bandleader; and an uilleann piper, to solidify the instrument’s legitimacy and give it, finally, a distinctive lead voice. A former classical guitarist who came to traditional music through the back-door of medieval repertoires (and a love of the music of Tom Binkley, which was later a powerful bond for us—I only wish Roger had ever been able to meet Tom, and Tom him), he’d used bouzouki throughout the history of Scartaglen (one of my very favorite moments on any of those records is his balls-to-the-wall riffage behind Kirk Lynch’s yowling pipes on “The South Bend Reels” and the army of mandolins on the “Day After Christmas” polkas), but had never before placed the burden of a whole record on the instrument.

Dragon Reels, Roger’s first solo disc, a beautiful record, and establishes its distinctive sound, character, and goals from the first track, the jigs “The First of October/Johnny the Jumper” (with the added bonus of the first being a C. Thompson composition). Roger’s SOS bouzouki is front and center in the mix, pacing every step of the way with Whelan’s casually commanding button box. Overall, the dance sets are massively powerful: the starkly-accompanied “Barrel of Knives”/“Tone Row’s”/“Leg of the Duck” set showcasing Roger’s roots as a piper, in tunes he got from Eugene Lamb; the “Master Crowley’s” reels where his ‘zouk is matched by Chris Grotewohl’s astonishingly idiomatic 5-string banjo; the Metallician “primordial ooze” of the “Slopes of Sliabh Luachra”/“Price of the Pig”/"Kitty's Wedding" jigs (with the added bonus of the heartbreakingly-beautiful Sufi/Dervish ascending counterpoint line behind the final tune); the “Murphy’s Nails”/“Parallel Polka” set, whose mandolin/bouzouki interplay recalls the classic polkas played by Andy Irvine and Johnny Moynihan of Planxty on Cold Blow and the Rainy Night. Even when he’s playing guitar, on the “Farrell O’Gara” reels, his piper’s ears, phrasing, and power are front-and-center. The disc closes with a wonderful Cape Breton-style set of march-strathspey-reels in the “Jerry Holland Set”, with takes us out with a suitable house-party feel. It reminds me of how much I loved playing music with those guys in that hot Weston summer of 1998, in the caverns and cellars deep below O’Malley’s. It was a privileged time.

Before I got to Weston, I learned this whole record. Even before I ever visited Zoukfest, I understood, just as I had 19 years before at the Guitar Workshop, that knowing the music these men made might open doors for me to know them—and that knowing them could make a profoundly positive impact in my life. I didn’t know then, only partly understood at Zoukfest, how right I was. Looking back, I can barely believe my own good fortune.

The Chipper Thompson/Mason Brown Am I Born to Die disc is the kind of record that makes you believe in good fortune; to believe that the stars might have had to align for it ever to occur—it has that sense of atypicality, and unpredictability, and, paradoxically, of inevitability; of the whole of any artistic collaboration being greater than the sum of its parts. Who would have thought that a self-taught Alabama guitarist/historical re-enactor/singer/songwriter and a Zen priest/ banjoist/ double-bassist/ carpenter would ever meet, much less collaborate? That kind of synchronicity is indicative of the kind of one-off partnerships that can only happen in an arts town like Taos—or Bloomington, for that matter—which can yield great art but, in a fallen and failed world, seldom any money.

The disc highlights Mason Brown’s astonishing facility on banjo and fingerpicked guitar and “high-lonesome” singing, and Chipper Thompson’s grainily-evocative Alabama voice and infallible sense of Southern Gothic. The aura of synchronous, felicitous timing and compatibility is throughout the production, even down to the Zen uniqueness of Chipper’s free-hand album design and the daguerreotype-style photos of the two taken by Lanford Monroe (I always insisted to them that they should have added one more round of photos in that set—showing them propped up in their coffins a la executed “badmen”; an idea that recurs in modified form on the cover photo for the hillbilly surrealism of Chipper’s Penny Dreadfuls, another fantastically-titled disc).

What would in anyone else have seemed affected or pretentious just came naturally to these guys: this record—packaging, photos, artwork, sound, songs, arrangements, focus—was who they were, up to and including larger-than-life. They called their music “Appalachian Murder Ballads and Celtic Songs of Love and Death”—which certainly captured the content. But what it, and the Old West/Art Deco design of the cover, and the hilarious solemnity of the period photos of the two, don’t prepare you for, is the sheer beauty which emerges from these tracks.

It’s all here: the lovely instinctive counterpoint of the guitar/bouzouki parts on “Pretty Peggy-O;” the “Appalachified” take, driven by Mason’s masterful frailing banjo, on Scots border ballads (“The Verdant Braes of Skreen”); the wild freedom with which they find the links between Old- and New-World songs, instruments, and techniques (the slide bouzouki which opens “Jesse James”); the Arthurian darkness of “Lady Gay,” which tropes the story of the Scots siblings Gawain and his brothers; the droning doom-laden ballads of blood, incest, and murder (“Bruton Town”) and, conversely, the beauty of others equally dark (“Banks of the Ohio”—as the old joke has it, “There are only two kinds of Irish songs: fast sad songs and slow sad songs”); the loopy, idiosyncratic, and hilarious minstrelsy Mason learned in medicine shows (“Rove Riley Rove”) and the swampy Jungian modality Chipper unearths in his own songs (“No Man Can Hinder”); the iconic, totemic songs of hillbilly symbolism (“The Pesky Sarpent”—sung by Mason, with a particularly frightening—and brilliant—fiddle obbligato from Chipper) which Chipper would later explore in his novel of snake-handling religion—best line: “Molly had a rotten tooth, and so the p’ison killed them both”. And, throughout, there is the stunning beauty of their intertwining voice parts, Mason’s “high lonesome” voice out of Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb; Chipper’s instinctive, distinctive, inimitable North Alabama roar, heard to possibly best—and darkest—effect on the album’s closer, the droning, spooky Shape-Note-styled title cut, which comes across as some kind of mutant scary out-of-body minor-key offspring of “Amazing Grace.”

And am I born to die?
To lay this body down?
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?

A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought;
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot.

They sound like hillbilly Khazars (the semi-mythical Turkic warriors, converted to Judaism, reputed to have retained a medieval culture in the high hills and deep valleys of the North Caucasus, later explored in The Janissary Stomp); you looked at these men, and listened to them, and you could imagine two siblings, marooned in some Appalachian holler, singing the songs that their mamas and grandmamas and great-grandmamas had brought across the water. The record sounds that old; that rooted; that timeless, inevitable, and eternal.

Also recommended: the later Landes/Thompson collaboration The Janissary Stomp (itself subject of a future “100 Greats” post), which in addition to having one of the great album titles ever, perfectly evocative of the (at least two) worlds that meet in its tunes, locates a similarly-inevitable meeting point of their two idiosyncratic greatnesses. The Stomp is the only possible soundtrack for the movie that should be the lives of these two larger-than-life characters.

I wrote to Roger a while later, when I’d come down a bit from the over-oxygenated high of being at Zoukfest, and thanked him for the chance to be a part of it. Though I didn’t quite confess to the vicious attitude I had brought to Weston, I was able to acknowledge how grateful and fortunate I felt to have been involved, and to begin to lay that stupid burden down. As I said at the end of that note of thanks, “It healed me.”

Years later Chipper, Mason, and Lanford came through Bloomington together just one time, just before Dharmonia and I departed there for the last time to a place we’d never been and another life. At the show we promoted for them, they closed with a song off of Am I Born to Die, and dedicated it to us: “Going to the West.” If there was ever an apt and loving metaphor for the life that Dharmonia and I were once again leaving, and the open frontier to which we were heading, this was it.

In this fair land I’ll stay no more
Our labour is in vain
I’ll leave the mountains of my birth
And seek the fertile plain.
I’m going to the West.

In recognition of how much they taught me, here are three poems that came out of that Weston summer.

For Roger:


It's all there:

Skirl of pipes,

Chatter of mandolin,

Curlicue of istampitta and geometry of Bach,

Wail of the nyckelharpa and knotwork of the sean nos,

Smoke of the rebeticos in the hash bars of Smyrna and Athens.

It’s all there:

Flaked Etruscan frescoes, shouting horsemen under Central Asian skies, tea-houses on the Silk Road; Mughal courts and Katak sacred dancers, poets in perfumed Iberian gardens; Turkish asiks riding muddy Anatolian streets, singers lifting makams in Damascus studios; Berbers chanting verses at star-lit oases; black-porter poets puffing cigarettes in the back parlors of Gaeltacht pubs;

From crossroads dances, RTE broadcast studios,

Bronx tenements, Chicago kitchens,

To a river landing on the Missouri:

It’s all there.

For Chip:


Breeze out of the hills;

whisper of fiddles and banjos.

Smell of woodsmoke and pork chops, pine and red dirt.

Voice of creek water, crackle of muskets, call of jay and redtail hawk.

Cockleburs in the mane, hounds at heel.

Fringe on the buckskin.

Dim blue riders on misty slopes above the hollow;

creak of leather;

smell of gun oil and black powder.

This is my home.

For Mason:

Zen Banjo


Mallet strikes board.

Tok. Tok. Tok-tok-tok-tok-tok.

Sound of banjo: “East Virginia Blues.”

40-watt bulb against blackness.

Shiny floors, dusty roads.

Ice on the bell and the forge.

Smell of incense and ganja.

Gaijin carpenter beard; Zen robes.

Border ballads, Delta blues, mountain music, the medicine show; cold pickles, rice gruel, burritos, beer, Mexican weed, cheap cigarettes; Milky Way night sky, horses stamping in the corral, Taos Mountain; Dogen’s Instructions for the Cook, a sofa to sleep on, the wisdom of the Patriarchs, a trailer in Sun Valley, the thumb of a leper, the teachings of the Dharma,

Whatever falls in the begging bowl,

Accepted with gratitude.

These records remind me of how much I owe these men. And how much I love them.

This entry is dedicated to the memory of Lanford Monroe (1950-2000), who, in her single painting of a grizzly bear on a burned-over hillside, called Surveyor, taught me more about my totem animal—and myself—than in all my millions of words. We loved her and we miss her.

1 comment:

Mistykalia said...

Yes and Yes.
I'll also say, I don't think I've ever met anyone who would disagree with me on that, either.