Friday, September 14, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 40 (Granite and brine edition)

This is where I come from. I have gone far away in my life. But this is where I'm from. I grew up just across that bay there, in a small house (converted "summer cottage") with an inlet of the Atlantic at the foot of the street. My beloved Black Lab would sneak out any unlatched door and run down to the end of the street, on any day of the year including New Year's and Christmas, to break through the soft ice at that frosted the granite boulders fringing the water and go swimming.

I swam across that bay at the age of 11--a challenge to myself, not articulated to anyone else, to prove to myself that I could do it (I was a self-mythologizer even at that age, probably because I was so desperate to escape what I perceived to be the sadness and frustration of my actual circumstances)--and then I swam back again.

Behind me, about 5 doors down from my left shoulder, is the bar called In a Pige's Eye where I played one of my first "folk" gigs with Dharmonia and m brother-in-music Larry: crammed into the bit of wallspace between the door to the kitchen and the one that led to the johns, playing guitar/bouzouki/fiddle versions of Irish folk tunes and sea chanties. I remember how young I was (in years and in experience) because, when the drunk at the bar spent 2 hours yelling "Play 'Drunken Sailor'!" I was too stubborn, too pigheaded, to agree, despite Larry and Dharmo's pleas. Had I even a bit more of historical awareness at that time, I would have realized that playing the shouted requests of drunks was something that had been going on, on that street and probably within that very building, for at least 250 years. As Larry points out, that street on the wharves had seen every cultural and sociological phenomenon Salem could throw at it: Puritans and pagans, Anglos and Indians and Chinese and Africans, ship-captains and longshoremen, whalers and sailors and fishermen, reeling down cobblestone streets lined with grogshops and fancy houses and wealthy merchants' mansions. Playing "Drunken Sailor" would have been apt historical performance practice, for that place.

Spent the morning in the back room of the Salem Customs House, a historic building and a National Historic Landmark, where Nathaniel Hawthorne held a job (for a few years) and where those same ship captains and merchants would have counted the golden guineas down on the barrelheads to keep their accounts. We were recording Irish and American versions of fiddle tunes for this project, which I might finally see in broadcast documentary form in, oh, two or three years. It was hard work but enjoyable (there' s nothing so verbose as a musicologist with a platform, unless it's a musicologist with a platform and a banjo), and I think the producers got good stuff--at least, at the end, the camera-man said of my talking-head stuff "this guy is an editor's dream" (20 years of public radio and 17 years of lecture classes will teach you how to be organized, memorable, and succinct).

But my favorite moments were afterward, the improvised bits filmed sitting down on the bollards of the old wharves themselves, the renovated 1798 schooner Friendship behind us, with the sun shining, the gulls calling, and the salt wind blowing through our hair. We played tunes together--my oldest musical friend in the world and I--tunes that Larry and I have played together for more than 30 years, tunes that were some of the first we ever played together, tunes I remember putting on an analog cassette using an old Marantz Dictaphone, in a disused "youth room" in my childhood church, in a sampler of music we put together so my now-long-deceased father would "understand what I wanted to do with my life" (boy, the heartbreaking naive optimism of adolescence); tunes that had come across the water at around the same time my own people had, and had echoed down the narrow cobblestoned streets and clapboard house-fronts of my home town ever since. We didn't really have to learn those tunes: we just had to lean in close, to the curbs and the shingles and the salt-bleached wooden boards of the wharves themselves, and catch the vibration of those tunes as they echoed down our arms and into the wood and gut and steel of our instruments.

And as we played, singing those old songs that had come across the water in the Age of Sail, with the gulls calling and Larry at my left hand, and the house that I grew up in and the beach where my dog played visible in the camera shot behind us, I was reminded again that there are no accidents in life. Our job is to get out of the way and let life hand us what it will.

And I'm grateful. For all of it.

For all the events and people and choices and chances and heartbreaks that led us from there to here.

All of it.

1 comment:

Dharmonia said...

This was absolutely beautiful.

Though I must say, in a way it made me feel like a tired little kid, after a wild day of every kind of activity imaginable, who turns to her parents and says: Can we go home now?

It's still home.