Wednesday, December 28, 2011
and went. Toward enjoyments that were half
real--half ruminations of my brain,
into the illuminated night I went.
And of strong wines I drank boldly, as drink
they who seek after pleasure and are brave.
(guess what it's about Georgia for me)
Monday, December 19, 2011
I'm going to just describe some awesome experiences of the past year/ six months/ whatever. I have mentioned that I've been working closely with the Very Excellent Vermonter, Anna Roberts-Gevalt. And boy, have we gone places!
Kentucky. Anna spent a couple years in the Bluegrass State researching women fiddlers. We went back to show our crankie to a wonderful woman, Letha, who knew the fiddler Lella Todd. Our crankie illustrates things Letha said about growing up near Lella, who used to play with all the neighborhood kids. If you're into that kind of thing, Anna put together a website of all her interviews, which are beautiful pieces of folklore in their own right, www.annarobertsgevalt.com. If you want to see the crankie about Lella, here's a link to a video:
and an image to help you along:
Below is Letha's brother, on the porch of a log cabin he reconstructed. I don't know how to communicate the sense of peace and easy-breathing that permeated this place. It was the midst of a really busy time for Anna and me, and I was stressing out; but that place, little by little, eased my burden. He and his wife manage a beautiful garden with maybe ten kinds of heirloom tomatoes. As we were leaving he took his cane and knocked down and broke open some Asian chestnuts, and handed them to us all gleamy.
And here's Anna and Letha in the quiet graveyard, at Lella Todd's grave:
Here is the red velvet couch where Lella used to keep her instruments. Letha has it in her living-room.
Here is a little lesson on Old-Time Music Culture. It's one of the most important features, as far as I'm concerned. It's a little thing called: Legacy.
Yes, while many cultures (especially Youth cultures, amirite?) are busy Rejecting the Man and spitting on their parents, Old-Time kids are seeking out geezers and geeking out
I think the days of secretive fiddlers are a little past, but the idea of passing on a way of art, and especially of keeping a way, is a real force at work in the old-time music community. I'm sure it's part of why the community is so supportive of children and beginners. I saw the same thing one time when I went to the Chickahominy pow-wow when I was in college. Many of us American types are afraid that we're just a few steps shy of tradition completely slipping away.
I went on a big fancy tour one time, and Sammy Shelor was there (Am I bragging? Yes.), and I'll tell you that the tears came to my eyes when he said late one night, "You seem like somebody who spent a lot of time with their grandparents." He told me about times he had spent with his older relatives, driving trucks. I wished then, and I still wish now, that I had asked more of my grandparents when they were alive. They were some of the best people I knew, and I took their wisdom for granted.
I say this not to guilt you; but as an encouragement--give it a try. Old people really like talking to young people. They know things. They have hilarious memories. It's not like you have to love banjos, or music from the 50s, or antique tractors--but I bet you will find something that interests you. In this era of the whole "local food! local business!" thing, how about a little local hanging-out? A little local culture? You could find out about your hometown. You could get to know your neighbors, and then they will be more likely to share their canned foods with you when the apocalypse comes.
Yes readers, Visit somebody! They will teach you their skills! The other thing about old people is that they are super grateful. When you visit them, they will feed you up, with veggies from their garden. (Foods I have received from visiting old-time musicians: pickles; relish; pickles again; relish again; home-grown tomatoes; sumac tea; brownies; pimento cheese; borscht; angel-food cake with strawberry sauce; hot soup.) They will give you a hug, and invite you back.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
One of the amazing things about working with my rock-steady home-girl sistah-from-another-mistah Anna is that we share an easy geek-out enthusiasm for personalities and talents, especially ones that are high on kooky and low on ego. For example, our friend Caleb Stine (songwriter and humanist extraordinaire) introduced us to the art of Loring Cornish of Baltimore, MD. Check out Loring's mirrored house:
And his studio:
We have been very lucky to explore (thanks in large part to Crankies, home-made performance-art of the future!) the wonderful world of..."visionary art". And just what is visionary art? Well, friend, it's hard for me to say. But here's what Aunt Wikipedia has to say on the subject:
"....art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself." -American Visionary Art Museum
Nice. Very nice. And how about this..."art brut"?
Dubuffet characterized "art brut" as:
- "Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade."
Oh my, Dubuffet. Stop it, you're making me a little flushed. When we visited the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, "flourishings of an exalted feverishness" was the order of the day. Indeed, this was an aspect of art that had been percolating in the back of my mind ever since I encountered the work of James Hampton:
Why, yes; that would be life-size religious-themed altar, ark of the covenant, thrones and stuff, all made of cigar-bands and other found foil. This kind of work fills me with awe, and also...discomfort. I don't don't think I have this kind of work in me. When I imagine the focus and time and the saving of every bit of foil for years and years...it makes my spine a little tickly.
Here's something that to my mind is similar. This artist beaded her kitchen:
Folk art encompasses art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic.. Folk Art is characterized by a naive style, in which traditional rules of proportion and perspective are not employed. Closely related terms are Outsider Art, Self-Taught Art and Naïve art.
Did you really just say, "peasant"? Never mind. Primarily utilitarian--like an amazing blanket or vase. I do love that stuff. I don't think it's quite the same somehow as the towering individualism of the visionary art, but whatever. Lines are blurry. Let's take little look at Naive art, shall we?
Naïve art is a classification of art that is often characterized by a childlike simplicity in its subject matter and technique. While many naïve artists appear, from their works, to have little or no formal art training, this is often not true. The words "naïve" and "primitive" are regarded as pejoratives and are, therefore, avoided by many.
Haha, what? (sorry Auntie Wiki--it must be said) the example picture for "childlike simplicity" is this:
Are you kidding?
The Lion's Repast by Henri Rousseau?
And this seems like a good place to break. But I hope to return to this topic later, and of course (you know me) RELATE IT TO BALLADS.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
I miss her.
I don't know that I have anything constructive to say, or any real reason for posting about this, except that I don't think that she & and her daughter should go unremembered. If you know the Morgan family of Seattle, through their music or just because, then I think anything as simple as good wishes have the power to help.
Here are the words to a song:
Sister, thou art mild and lovely
Gentle as the summer breeze
Pleasant as the air of evening
As it floats among the trees.
Peaceful be thy silent slumber
Peaceful in the grave so low
Thou no more shall join our number
Thou no more our songs shall know.
Dearest Sister, thou hath left us
Here thy loss we deeply feel
But tis God that hath bereft us
He can all our sorrows heal.
Yet again we hope to meet thee
When the days of life have fled
There in heaven we'll joy to greet thee
Where no farewell tears are shed.
Monday, November 7, 2011
He pulled out a knife.
"This is all I have left from my father, and it's not just for you, Barry. It is for both of you."
While our jaws were hanging open, Barry said, "I can't take the knife."
John took an aside from translating to tell him that he had to take the knife. The shepherd would be dishonored if he didn't. So Barry stood up--in this intense moment and next to these weathered men he looked like a little kid in a Dick & Jane book or something-- and walked to the other end of the table where the shepherd stood. They shared an intense eye-lock and handshake, the kind where you grip elbows and clap each others' backs, and they exchanged a Euro-style kiss on the cheek. And Barry took the knife.
"Wait, wait!" The shepherd said, "You also must have the case. I made it out of one of the goats I slayed." He used the word slayed--or more accurately, John used that word while translating.
"Smell the inside--it will smell like that for a hundred years!"
So the sheath was also passed over to Barry, who said:
"Can you tell him...that I made a coonskin cap? And that...I'm really going to use this knife? Like, I'm REALLY going to USE it?"
Hilariously, John's short answer was--no. Which sort of makes sense--why would you explain about this animal and a hat with a tail on it, and Daniel Boone and stuff? But I also wonder if John thought that this comment--if added to the inevitably inadequate thanks--was just a little too twinkie. And I think we were all thinking some version of the same thing, that there's no way to properly thank or repay in a moment like this. And also, that there was no-one at that table who needed a knife more, every day, than the man who had just given his away.
And then the really incredible thing happened. Sergo--shaved bald head, red t-shirt, red jeep, ex-gun-runner Sergo--stood up. He pulled his knife out of his belt. He took it out of the case. The blade was black and teflon-looking. And he threw the knife into the table in front of the shepherd, with these words:
"This is yours now."
I can safely say that I had never seen anything like it. I was agog. I think we were all agog, and maybe a little tipsy.
When I looked back on it, even later that same day, I tried to work out just what it was that I saw. Why I thought the same thing wouldn't happen in my country--or at least not where I could see it. I couldn't help thinking that it was like something from another time. That maybe throwing the knife into the table is something I would read about Robin Hood doing, or Sir Gawain, as a side-plot to one of those romantic stories. It was like an example of the old-fashioned "courtesy" we don't really set stock by in the U.S. I don't think that was the whole shape of it, though. It's not a question of time, it's a question of...culture, I guess, and it struck me as a matter of the economy there. Sergo was the most well-off native Georgian there. John the American ex-pat didn't carry a knife. When we as a group felt at a loss as to what could happen next, and uncomfortable about how damn rich we all were compared to this Shepherd who said he would give his life for us, it was Sergo's responsibility to step up and make the situation a win-win--to uphold Courtesy or Honor or whatever. And Sergo's the one who ended up knife-less, BUT he also ended up generous. I can only imagine that there's some kind of bond between him and the shepherd now. I got the impression that Sergo is an influential person in that part of Georgia, and I'm ignorant enough not to know what that really entails. It's probably meals like the one we had that create and maintain that influence. Or maybe, as more than one person I've told this story to has suggested, they all had a laugh about it after us naive Americans went home, and John paid the actors.
The shepherd pled with us to stay the night.
"I would light a fire beside each one of you! I would slay animals and we would have such roasted meats! We would sing songs into the night!"
We were pretty caught up in the moment, and most of us were ready to do it--but in the end, concerns about the cold (ten thousand feet, remember?), our lack of gear, our lack of a way to notify the rest of our group, and--as Sergo took me aside to point out--fleas, put us back on our horses and riding once more past the dogs, over the stream, down the mountain, and back to the guesthouse. We stopped at a tiny village of stone houses and little girls passed us cups of water to drink. I was really nervous because I wasn't very good at controlling my horse, and I didn't want those dang adorable kids running around near the hooves, but it was OK. Surreally, from somewhere in the village some loud music was playing (probably a car stereo, that was a popular method of radio-listening): this Kylie Minogue song.
On the last few hundred yards, John asked the group if it was OK with us to finally let the horses go and gallop back to the guesthouse. Ho ho ho. Was it. It was so exciting--horses apparently enjoy running full speed at the very edge of a steep drop-off, and also gaining on other horses and getting super close to them to pass. I loved it. Even the gravel hitting my face made me feel like a badass. I just hoped they would stop when we got to where we were going, but of course I needn't have worried. Safe and sound, and breathless, we returned with a story on our lips.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Monday, September 26, 2011
Monday, September 19, 2011
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Friday, September 2, 2011
We were all smiling so big to meet each other there, me looking for Betsy in the faces of these women, Jim Barnes so tall, us girls so short. Jim and the three of us--Mom, Dad, and me--talking about what an incredible singer Betsy was. My mother and father talking about listening to the musicians of our area, going to the fiddler’s convention in Galax in the seventies. My Dad took his Betsy Rutherford album back to college in Ann Arbor, Michigan; back to what I imagine as a small round table in a small dark college dorm room where he and his buddies had a continuous bridge game running. He played with the football guys, and the list of allowed LPs was a short one. Motown was unilaterally banned, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan allowed, and because of my Dad the southern boy those Michigan jocks over at the political school were listening to James Taylor and Betsy Rutherford too.
I got the chance to say to her daughters, “So many places I go to sing, I talk about your mother.” To tell them how their mother shaped my life by the power of her songs and the way she sang them. When I was a teenager, looking for new songs to sing at the Fiddler's Convention, my Dad played his old LP for me. I remember I liked Joan Baez at the time, I liked James Taylor, and I liked Irish music, and the Beatles. Betsy Rutherford's voice rolled. She had a deep and sweet voice, that could sigh, too. She could rock you--not in a Joan Jett way, but rock your soul. There was so much conviction and passion and reality in the sound. I had read a novel called "Belle Prater's Boy", that featured the song "Tramp On The Street". I thought it sounded sappy; but when she sang it, it was full of this truth.
She sang "Rain and Snow":
I saw her coming down the stairs
Combing back her long yellow hair
And her cheeks were as red as a rose.
I understood so fully, so powerfully, this devastating destructive beauty. I knew what that verse meant.
Lacy said, “Mom was a storyteller, first and foremost.”
We visited the house, met the dogs. In a little wood-paneled room, a mini-archive in Galax, sat DJ John Coffey, who took requests and spun us 78s that made us want to shake a foot. Heather threw back her head and said, "Harvey and Copeland!" and out it came. For many years John made "Christmas albums": exhaustively notated 25-track compilations of traditional music from his vast collection, just for enjoying and giving to the family at Christmastime. My dad got all twilight zone when he saw the stained-glass bathroom door that John put in 20 years ago; Dad just put our stained-glass bathroom door in place a couple months back.
Gazing around at the neat stacks of records, drawers full of CDs and tapes, it was obvious--Mr. Coffey is a brilliant scholar. He wrote liner notes for Betsy’s album, before they were married.
It touched my heart. Heather and Lacy would say, “I just loved to hear Mom sing.” “We always knew she was amazing.” They talked about Fields Ward. Both John and Betsy wrote poems about him. The music of this family has touched me so, that to meet those close to her is a huge gift. We share something that is theirs to share, not mine; but the amazing thing about art is that we both understand. We all understand it. I feel so grateful for that.
Please keep your eyes peeled for this radio documentary by Jim Barnes about Betsy Rutherford Coffey.