Monday, July 23, 2007

"100 Greats" #063: Various artists: National Geographic's Songs and Sounds of the Sea"

Several years back Dharmonia and I had the exterior of our little Cape Cod-styled house repainted (pretty severely out-of-place on the High Plains of West Texas, but it feels at least a little more familiar, and a little more peaceful and comforting, as a result). Part of the job, offered freely by our fantastic renovation specialist (who took a year to do the job, but went over every inch of the exterior, literally, with a little blowtorch and a 1-inch scraper, taking off every bit of every layer of the scabrous old paint), was to renovate the decrepit kitchen door. He asked me if we wanted a replacement for the pneumatic door-closer, or if an old-style spring attached to the door jamb was OK. I thought the old-school vibe of the spring suited the original date of the house (and those pneumatic openers never work right anyway), so I told him to go ahead. The very first time I went through that door after he was done, I unthinkingly let it swing shut behind me, and it banged home against the door frame. And I laughed aloud, saying to Dharmonia and Darryl, “I can hear my mother’s voice yelling ‘Don’t slam the screen door!’”

Sounds can do that. The cognition specialists say that smell is the sense that most strongly evokes the lobe governing memory—and certainly smells are powerful for me too—but for a musician, I think sounds might be even more powerfully evocative. I know that if I hear the first two or three notes of any of the records I went to school on—any of the “100 Greats” records, for instance—I can instantly recall not only all the songs on the disc, but virtually every aspect of the performances, live or studio, brilliant or error-ridden, and usually also the circumstances in which I first imprinted on the disc.

Not necessarily the first time I heard the record—but damned sure the circumstances in which I listened to it again and again. I hear the opening notes of Born to Run, and I am in that dorm room in the East Village in 1976; the opening notes of Albert King’s Live at Montreux, and I am in that little dusty house on the east side of Midland Texas in 1979 ; the opening notes of the Planxty Black album, and I am in that damp dirty basement apartment in Brookline Mass in 1981. It’s an invaluable skill for a musician, of course, particularly a musician who is interested in learning a vernacular music: Lester Young went to school on Jimmy Dorsey records; Charlie Parker went to school on Lester Young sides; Eric Dolphy went to school on Bird solos; I went to school on Eric’s records (of which my revered teacher David Baker said, inimitably, “I think Eric just heard that shit”—evidently, so did I). It’s an act not only of homage but also of intelligent education—there is no way to learn a vernacular music from sheet music: ideally, you learn it from a live musician-mentor; failing that (and ever since the 1890s at least), you can learn it from mentors on records. When cultivated intelligently and consistently, it becomes the aural equivalent of a photographic memory. Those with such memories are not necessarily remembering semantic content, I’m told: more commonly, they are able to recall a visual image of the text in question—and thus reproduce it. What I’m talking about, then, is the aural equivalent: a kind of phonographic memory.

My home town was founded in 1629 by a couple of reprobates ejected from the proper Puritan town of Salem Massachusetts (where they were shortly to get down to proper Puritan business, fanning religious hysteria and persecuting witches): thrown out, two of the town drunks floated across the harbor in a hogshead, and set up housekeeping in that same hogshead. A woods-and-granite natural peninsula sticking out into Massachusetts Bay, my home town had a long succession of blue-collar identities: sheep-herding ground, fishing settlement (and probably smugglers’ haven), shoe-manufacture town, Coast Guard encampment, and, latterly and disappointingly, yuppie bedroom community. It’s beautiful there now—the Zoning Board’s draconian restrictions have managed to maintain the 17th century beauty of the old town—but I could neither afford nor stomach living there anymore.

But when I was a kid, it hadn’t yet been totally gentrified: there were still crusty old fishermen putting out of the harbor, families still ran lines of lobster-pots on licenses they’d held for 6 or 7 generations (and it was still a given fact in local lore that if you were caught stealing out of someone else’s pots, they could shoot you—it was that serious a crime), and, though no kid ever realizes it, the sense of history, some of the oldest European history in the New World, came up out of the cobblestones, off the clapboards of the old red- and white-painted houses near the harbor, and out of the stories that the old-timers, the houses, and the town’s own records told.

The original of the Spirit of ’76 hangs in the town hall, the headstones in the old cemetery reach back to the 1640s, and the foul-mouthed fishermen (and probably smugglers) in John Glover’s Continental Regiment not only helped win the battles of Princeton and Trenton for George Washington’s Continentals, but got Washington out of New York, and into New Jersey, thereby turning the tide of the American Revolution. And then at the end of their enlistments they went back home and signed on as privateers: they weren’t done with those fuckin’ Excise Commissioners, and they weren’t above turning a profit in a good cause, either.

I remember my home town.

The Fort on the northeast headlands of the harbor, whose guns had protected the USS Constitution (and, for that matter, the US Constitution) during the War of 1812, where my father ran the local arts festival, and where I once saw an outdoor high-school production of Arthur Miller’s Salem - as - McCarthyism parable The Crucible which is still the most terrifying theater I have ever seen (in that place, with that ground's history, when those delusional girls started screaming about seeing “spirits in the trees” that surrounded the stage, you believed them);

The park about halfway down the harbor, whose bluffs looked east over the water, to the peninsula where the rich folks lived (and past whose Newport-style summer mansions we’d drag-race), to the Atlantic ocean, and beyond, to the places over the sea from where, generations before, most of our families had come from—and where, one summer night, Pete Seeger docked his sloop Clearwater, and gave a concert as the brilliant white full moon rose behind him;

The inlet we kids all knew as Screaming Woman Cove, where popular legend had it that the ghost of a woman kidnapped by pirates, who had drowned herself to escape rape, still held sway;

The tavern that had belonged to “Black Joe” Brown, a Continental-era free man of color, in whose pond there was a venerable and legendary snapping turtle whose shell was bigger than a trash-can cover (but whose presence didn’t keep us from swimming in the summer and skating in the winter), and whose wife “Mammy” Creasie (in the ‘60s, we didn’t know that that appellation was no longer OK), had baked gigantic, long-lasting “Joe Frogger” gingerbread cookies which were prized by the town's codfishermen heading out for a summer on the Grand Banks;

Redd’s Pond, named after one of the poor women who was tortured and martyred during the Salem Witch hysteria of the 1690s, above which loomed the old cemetery where my brother-in-music Larry and I spent more than one spooky night playing tunes, and where the worn headstones around us were marked with the crude skull-or-bones mementi mori of the old Congregationalists;

The beach at the foot of my childhood street, where in winter we would ride sleds down from the steep hills, and where—if we weren’t careful—we’d wind up skidding off the road and right into the harbor—closely followed by my Black Labrador, who thought it was all a great game. But where, in summer, we could still harvest uncontaminated clams and mussels, and, with lobster from family pots and corn from roadside farm-stands, dig a pit and have a real clam-bake—and across whose mile-wide harbor, one year, as a challenge to myself, I swam.

Thus this record. Just as the slamming of a screen door in West Texas in takes me back to my home town around 1966, so the opening of this disc (now, sadly, long out of print and attaining all the more admiration for its unavailability), takes me back too.

It’s simply the sound of leather-shod feet walking on a wooden platform. But I know that sound, and its specifics, exactly what produces it, and it instantly takes me back 40 years: to the worn, sun-bleached, salt-encrusted docks of the Atlantic seaboard where I grew up. I can not only hear that sound—and remember all the thousands of times my own feet made it, as I walked down at midnight to board a local lobster boat, so we could be out on the beds in time for sunrise, after which it was legal to pull (your own) pots; or to climb aboard one of Fred Hood’s boats and help set the sails his loft made and that helped win the America’s Cup year after year; or (as a very small child) to climb onto the ferry, strapped up in a life jacket, for the ride out to the island where the YMCA ran a summer day camp.

In memory, I can see it and smell it too: the smell of that waterfront, a compound of seaweed, dead shellfish, and salt water—and the clean, clean smell of the Atlantic wind.

This record captures that, as much as any audio-only source can do. Recorded in 1973 on and around working sailing ships out of Vineyard Haven, off the coast of Massachusetts, it included what seems, in hindsight, an absolute dream-team of folk-revival players and singers (most of them in the early flowering of their young, hungry, visceral musical conceptions):

the fantastic “sea-songs” duo of John Roberts and Tony Barrand, two musicians (voice, concertina, fiddle, guitar) who between them were absolutely fundamental to the New England folk revival (and, in the person of the indefatigable Barrand, “Mother” of the Marlboro Morris Men and author of Six Fools and a Dancer, of the Morris revival as well);

from the studio, the Scottish/Irish supergroup The Boys of the Lough, at that time just beginning to crack open the North American market for the explosion of “Celtic” groups who would follow in the 1980s;

the great Joe Hickerson, a New Haven native and later folk-music archivist for the Library of Congress;

the indefatigable Lou Killen, born in Durham but emigrated to the States with the Clancy Brothers in the ‘60s, who brought the spirit and intensity of Ewan MacColl’s songs and political stance to North America;

and [also from the studio] the great banjo-player Michael Cooney, whose version of The Dreadnaught (which also shows up in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous), is a high point of the disk;

They sang shanties—forebitters and capstan shanties and “long-hauls” and short-drags and stamp-and-gos—and they played and danced hornpipes and polkas (favorite moment, “Oh, You New York Girls, Can’t You Dance the Polka?”), and they did it on-board ship. Those were the places that these songs and tunes were played and sung to make the work go faster, and you could tell the music was at home there.

The notes were good, as I recall, though at the age of 11 I didn’t really register the details, but I remember the photos in the elaborate National Geographic gatefold jacket as clear as yesterday: Roberts and Barrand with concertina and banjo in the foretop of a New England coal-bark, the whole crew of singers and players tailing onto and hauling away with the halyards the raised the mainsail. The interpolations between music (gulls, the sound of sheets flapping, waves slapping against a close-hauled heeling wooden hull) mesmerized me, because they were the sounds I heard around me on a daily basis (I still only register that I’m home when I hear the gulls in the morning)—they were the sounds of my childhood. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that this might have been one of the very first times I ever experienced the possibility that the sounds of my home town and of the “folk” musics I was just beginning to discover might actually emanate from—and belong in—the same place. I am indebted to this record for the realization of the astonishing creative resources that the history of my own home town, and the people of that history, might represent. One of whom is my brother.

My younger brother is one of the most manually talented people I have ever met: the ways in which he can visualize and then create objects of stunning physical beauty, usually on historical models, with nothing but his mind’s eye and a few hand tools, humbles me every time I witness it. He entered a museum-quality cabinet-making program at seventeen, built the Immigration Officers’ desks which were the focus of the Ellis Island memorial, and runs his own business making reproduction window sash, usually for Colonial and historical homes. And a couple of times—for fun—he built boats, based on the Nathaniel Herreshoff designs which were indigenous to our home town and transformed the craft of small-boat design.

He’s also much more of a New Englander than I am, I think: having lived his whole life there, and married a State-of-Mainer, he’s still got much more of the accent, vocabulary, and mannerisms. That's why I'm always surprised--and enormously gratified--when people can tell we’re brothers.

The harbor above which my parents live is widely regarded as the safest Atlantic anchorage for wind-powered sail north of Virginia. It was always a center for sailing trade: fish, rum, or the current debasement of ugly plastic yachts with stupid names which are a mark-of-status toy for a certain kind of greasy little yuppie. But it was also that harbor (and the tough sons-of-bitches who manned the cannon at its mouth) which saved the ass of the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides”, from pursuit by two British frigates during the War of 1812.

Closed and secure to the East, South, and West, it’s vulnerable only in one direction: to the very infrequent, but very ferocious storms which blow, contrary to the Gulf winds and current, out of the Northeast, down from Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland beyond. In that kind of weather, we’ve learned to tape the windows, lock the shutters, and lay in canned food—especially in winter, you don’t want to be out in a Nor’easter.

But one winter we had one. My brother had built, entirely by hand and by eye, a beautiful 18-foot lapstrake rowing dory, based on a Herreshoff design he’d found in our local library (itself the only place in my home town I felt safe, the topic of another “100 Greats” post, and the place where I first heard this record). He had it anchored at my step-dad’s inherited mooring, near the base of the harbor, and had carefully weighted the anchor so that there was no possibility of it dragging and fetching up against the rocks of the beach.

But some of those greasy little yuppies with the bloated plastic boats didn’t know what the fuck they were doing, or were too lazy, or too busy making money, or too unaware of what North Shore weather can actually be like, to do the same. And at the height of the storm, when the temperature was 12 degrees below freezing and the sleet was pounding horizontally into my folks’ windows, and anyone with any brains had long since pulled or double-moored their boats, a couple of those yuppies’ pieces-of-shit dragged their anchors. And they blew down toward the granite-fanged rocks at the base of the harbor. And they took my brother’s dory with them. And they fetched up against the rocks, and they began pounding his boat to pieces.

As I was told the story, he ran down the wooden stairs from the house, and was barely prevented from diving into the surf to swim to his boat and haul it out of danger. It’s a measure of the man that I am absolutely confident that, had he not realized the boat was already flinders, he would have succeeded: he would have fought his way out through that below-freezing water and howling wind and saved his craft. I know it.

My step-father, who's cut from the same cloth, was a mine-disposal engineer in the Second War: he lived 14 months in a job where the life expectancy was six weeks, and he came home in one piece. He’s a calm, taciturn man: after those experiences, I guess you’d learn to be. He sailed his own boats for years, until chronic pain made it too risky and too frustrating.

Now, past 90, he navigates himself around my folks’ house in an office chair because he refuses to use a wheelchair. He still works in his garden when there’s not too much snow on the ground, and still watches the barometer and the sky, and can still, infallibly, predict the weather. And at least one last time, before that Nor’easter storm, my brother and step-dad had a summer's day on the water, just the two of them, in the boat my brother had built himself, according to the old old patterns.

Because that’s how they do—and have done, for the past 350 years—up where I come from.

This is a poem about them, and about my home:

These Wooded Hills

These wooded hills and rocky shores
are the
memory of my childhood;

whipped by salt Atlantic waves,
traced by crumbling dry stone walls;
marked by cowshit and the cry of gulls,

gouged by retreating glaciers of a last Ice Age;
and the faint whispering voices
of old wars, old words, old violence, old victories.

Granite, oak, slate, and pine;
topsoil's topography ripped away,

leaving the bones.

--cjs 12.23.02

This post is dedicated to my younger brother and to my step-father—the carpenter, and the combat vet—two self-reliant Down-Maine saltwater sailors and Yankee men-of-their-hands who I am proud to call family.

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