A writer's online journal of
opinion, observation and musings.
Archive: January - June, 2002
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I've been looking over my entries of this past year. This website, and this weblog started at the very beginning of 2001, so this is an appropriate milestone. It is interesting to me how so many threads come together again a year later.
Starting at the beginning -- I was jump-started into hosting my own website because my old site at songs.com was unceremoniously terminated by Gaylord Entertainment (see "Ta-Dum" of 01/01/01). This week Gaylord is at it again. One of their properties they acquired a few years back is Nashville's heritage radio station WSM, a 76 year-old radio station and the on-air home of the Grand Ole Opry all those years. It's a clear channel AM station, that reaches most of the eastern half of the US. Not only can one listen to the Opry live, the way it was intended (with all the goofy commercials and the many "hosts" of the many segments, or "shows") but also the Ernest Tubb's Midnight Jamboree which follows it on Saturday nights, as well as great bluegrass and old-time country programming mixed in with classic and modern sounds all week.
Now it is revealed the corporate geniuses at Gaylord want to turn WSM into an all-sports station with ESPN affiliation. They want to modernize and syndicate the Opry, which will soon kill it, of course. They say WSM lost money for them in 2001, while their other holdings (Opryland Hotel, Opry Mills, and the Opry itself) made money. So the bottom-liners will ax country music on the station that started it all, and in doing so collapse one of the twin towers of country music heritage in Nashville. This seems to me like killing your rooster because he doesn't lay eggs.
And so the new year commences.
For Christmas, my wife gave me John Hartford's last CD, Hamilton Ironworks (See "John Hartford" of 06/05/01). It really is an interesting album. A few months before he became bed-ridden, John saw his time coming to a close. As a tribute to his heroes, he recorded the fiddle tunes he learned in his early days in Missouri with a stream-of-consciousness monologue/monotone as a sort of running vocal footnote. He lets us in on his rambling (and often funny) memories and the reasons these tunes and the old fiddlers he learned them from are so important. The CD is up for a Grammy in the traditional folk category. Somebody up there has good taste.
(If John were around today, I'm sure he'd have a wise crack at the fools who own WSM. He did a brilliant parody of a smarmy WSM announcer back in 1971 on his Aereoplane album -- "Dorothy Yes Ma'am in Bashful Johnny C.")
Of course a look back at 2001 has a stark memory of September 11 at the core. With a few months behind us now, the scars are just beginning to toughen up around the edges. Just today NYC announced that visitors and tourists will need time-stamped tickets to visit the former twin tower site from the viewing platforms they have erected. As of now the tickets are free.
Also today a violent (and probably schizophrenic) passenger on a domestic flight made the news when he assaulted a flight attendant by waving around one of his shoes. (See "Flight from Hell" 07/29/01) Maybe from now on we should check our shoes, along with our nail clippers and guitar capos right at the entrance to the airport. When we arrive at the destination, we can take somebody else's size 8's from a box at the entrance door. It'd be like the "leave a penny, take a penny" cup at the cash register. Or maybe the airport could rent out shoes for flying, like at the bowling alley.
Every day is flag day now. (See "Flag Day -- A Pleasant Evening" 06/14/01) Up and down the avenue, on trucks, cars, buses, stuck on road signs, draped in windows -- more flags than you can shake a stick at. Unfortunately for old glory, many of the new breed of flag wavers don't have a clue as to flag etiquette. Little cheap flags -- even little expensive flags -- weren't designed for steady gale-force winds. And that is what an SUV rattling down the highway at 80 mph yields to a piece of fabric tied to it. So I see lots of ratty, torn flag-stumps on cars in parking lots. Also around town I see a lot of torn, twisted, wet flags displayed 24/7 with no attendance and no respect beyond the initial bravado that caused their raisings. How many of these new patriots will gasp to learn that the proper way to dispose of a worn, torn or soiled flag is to burn it? Or bury it as you would a person?
That will make a good segment on "Good Morning America" soon. Or Martha Stewart. Mark my words.
Yesterday I read that silver was the most popular color for new cars in the US. Funny -- I never see truly silver cars on the road. However, I do see the several nameless metallic colors that are vaguely silver "ish" (see "The Color Of Nothing" 10/16/01). Again -- "predominance" doesn't necessarily mean "preference." Most of us didn't choose George W. Bush either. If it's the only thing left on the lot -- you drive it home.
Yes, old "W" is riding high in the polls right now. This off-year's election cycle should prove interesting. Early in 2001, self-serving Enron executives had six secret meetings with Dick Cheney before his energy policy was formed. That news was on the back page of the paper today. We'll see if that story makes it to the front page before November.
Meanwhile the war on evil proceeds.
Here's the latest third verse for Duct Tape Blues (see "Duct Tape Blues 2001" of 01/28/01)
The whole world changed on September eleven
Happier New Year, everybody!
Shortly after the attack on the US -- now nearly always described in the press as "The Events Of September Eleventh" -- the new mood in America was heralded in some prestigious magazine (New Yorker? Time? People?) as "the death of Irony."
Many people use the term "irony" without knowing what it means. (That in itself is not ironic but simply pathetic.) When the literal meaning of your words or action are the direct opposite of your intended meaning, that's irony. The mantra of the ironic person is, "Yeah, right." If you find yourself muttering "yeah, right" at least five times a day, you are in the irony club. ( "Oh, really" can count as a substitute, but only if uttered as a bland statement, not a question or rebuke. Posed as a question, "Oh, really" is the hallmark of the gullible -- the higher the lilt in the voice, the more gulled. And "Oh, Really" thrown down as a scornful rebuke means that you miss the irony in the situation altogether.)
The death of Irony? It seems the reports of the demise of sarcasm, satire, cynicism, and general wisecrackery were a bit premature. Irony is back, and not a moment too soon.
Sincerity just won't do when George W shows up with a black eye and a fat lip and blames it on a pretzel. Yeah, right. Dick Cheney refuses to divulge the notes to his meetings with Enron because it would compromise a future President's ability to get honest advice. Yeah, right. Donald Rumsfeld drums the word, war, war, war for four months, but the prisoners we've taken can't be called Prisoners of War. Yeah, right. And the cure for a deficit is the same as a cure for a surplus -- tax cuts for the wealthy. Yeah, right.
Don't get me wrong. I have no doubt that we as a people elected the smartest, brightest and most honest team of leaders ever, and we need not worry one moment about a Republican politician in a position of power and privilege using the current surge of patriotic fervor to cover up a self-serving agenda. It can't happen here.
Here's an interesting tidbit for you lovers of old time music and found poetry (a small, but intensely interesting group of people). An internet acquaintance of mine, Rob Hutten, posted an bit of data to an email list lately. He had found a website that contained all of the lyrics to all of the Carter Family songs. (The Carter Family of Virginia being the early stars of old-time country music and known for their earthy songs of love, death and homely virtues.) Rob did a word search and compiled the most frequently used words, omitting, of course, the common verbs, articles, conjunctions etc. Any word appearing in ten or more songs was included. I thought the list read rather nicely, especially in reverse order. I've arranged the list so that some words appear together, but these are not phrases, per se -- just words that happen to lie next to each other in the list.
So here, starting with the word used 25 times in 18 songs (friends) in ascending order to the word used most, 262 times in 101 songs, (love) are the favorite words of the Carter Family:
Carter Family Words
The news has been particularly grim and gruesome lately. Insane mothers drowning their babies to save their souls, a fetid Georgia crematorium stuffed with rotting corpses, hundreds of cases of pedophile Catholic priests abusing little altar boys -- it's hard to open a paper anymore. It makes the cruel avarice and mendacity of Enron seem mildly banal by comparison.
Pushed to the back pages are the ongoing efforts of the White House to deny the public any knowledge of who helps them make public policy -- the aforementioned Enron execs a case in point. Cheney says he needs to protect his sources so as to get the "unvarnished" truth from them. Hey Dick -- the varnish is stinking around here. Open a window!
Dick Cheney has been in government long enough to remember another Dick in the executive branch. And, as though from the grave, Nixon speaks to us again.
This past week, a new batch of thirty-year-old tapes of Richard Nixon were released. One of them was a 1972 conversation between Nixon and the Reverend Billy Graham. In these tapes, in his own stentorian voice, Billy is heard to utter rampant anti-Semitic opinions, to which his buddy Dick (most powerful man on the planet at the time) heartily concurs. According to AP reports, at one point Billy laments that Jews control the media:
Thirty years later Graham apologizes, as reported by the AP:
HMMM... He doesn't actually say he has changed his opinion. Maybe he was just kidding with Richard Nixon, or maybe just giving him "varnished truth." It wouldn't be possible he is lying to us now, do you think? Certainly not using a "Texas public relations firm!"
It brings to mind a joke Mort Sahl used to tell back around 1972. It went something like this:
"Nixon likes to make himself look good by playing golf with Billy Graham. That tells me more about Billy Graham than Nixon."
Just returned from a trip to Ireland. No -- not gigging. Jan and I went for a much deserved vacation. It was our first time there, and we had a delightful time. Expecting the famous Irish rain, we were happily met with sunny days, mostly. Everyone we met said we were unusually lucky. Doubly so, since back home in Michigan, the week after Easter was snowy and cold.
We stuck to the west, not venturing much beyond counties Kerry and Clare. We're not of the type to click-and-run-to-see-it-all, like many Americans abroad. Even so, there is much to absorb in even this corner of Ireland. History is everywhere, from the pre-Celtic ringfort in your pasture to the Norman castle next to your pub. Everywhere there are piles of stones -- fences, huts, churches. A lot of time and labor to build a stone wall. A friend said he built his on the one-a-day scheme.
More so than the sites, the people of Ireland are the real treasure of the place. I'm struck by the number of people I met who have a brother, cousin or uncle in the states -- or who have a job there themselves. Jimmy Bruic is a waiter in Yonkers, NY in the winter and returns home to Dingle after St. Pat's day to run his modern B&B built on his father's dairy farm. Tourists the world over come to Ireland (now on the Euro currency, Germans abound -- and bring their own food with them) but there seems to be a special kinship to Americans. The Irish seem to share our distaste for class distinctions, probably a legacy of English rule. Aer Lingus, I noticed has no "first class" section, per se, while offering "enhanced" service for a price.
(With the great Irish-US cultural ties, however, I am surprised that the Irish national game of hurling hasn't caught on here in the US. It's like a cross between hockey and baseball. It is fast, dangerous, and you get to hit things with sticks -- what's not to like?)
It is obvious to all that there is a growing danger of rampant tourism spoiling Ireland. Some claim it already has. I saw a brand new "castle" hotel being built between Doolin and Lisdoonvarna -- a variation on the "spend a night in a castle" scheme with less dank, more swank. And the pretty town of Doolin itself is built upon the tourist trade of recent years. Traditional music is the calling card in Doolin, but spontaneous sessions have given way to booked musicians with rehearsed sets, and the tourists look just like the ones in Bar Harbor or Mendocino. "Quaint" is a trademark in these towns. Still, one remembers that the Spanish Armada sank off the Doolin pier. And it was just a mile from the site of McGann's pub that they executed the survivors. (This is not in the tourist brochures.)
There is still the real Ireland to be found, of course. It is alive and well. I was thrilled to be included in a great session of county Galway musicians in a small pub, in a non-tourist town. (To remain un-named here on the internet) It actually reminded me of the best of our old-time jam sessions here at home -- a community event where all generations and skill levels are welcome and people genuinely want to share with others more than to parade their own talents.
Yes the roads are narrow and they drive on the "wrong" side, but other than the whiz of speeding tour buses, the living is slow and easy in Ireland. I'm struck once again in my travels of how the environment shapes our lives. In Ireland there are no snowplows, frost heaves, or air conditioners, as the temperature year round hovers between 35° and 65°. A small fireplace and a sweater is all you need for warmth. Whereas here in the Great Lakes the winter can kill you in ten minutes. And the summer heat breeds swarms of disease-ridden mosquitoes and biting flies. So it's screens and storm windows, wide plowable roads and lots of swimming holes. Life takes a different shape in the form of our roads, our architecture, and our pastimes. That's why it becomes so important to travel -- to see another option for living beyond our own coping strategy. We can learn from each other.
It has been a very busy spell for me these last few weeks, since returning from Ireland. A tour of folk clubs in NJ, CT, & NY; a weekend at the Maryland Banjo Academy; a three-day tour of lower Wisconsin (oh, the cheese curds!); building a new raised-bed garden in the back yard; and recording a new album. Whew!
It's the last -- making a new record -- that I have on my mind tonight. I'll be back in the studio for a first mixdown tomorrow. It's a blues & ragtime album -- something I've promised myself to do for years and now getting around to it. It's one of the most fun times in the studio I've had with a guitar. Growling, shouting and thumping my thumb -- it's a good workout.
And it has shaken loose some old memories. One of them is the afternoon I spent with Brownie McGhee some thirty years ago.
It was either late 1972 or early in '73. I was in my sophomore year at Michigan State, living in the "hippie" dorm of Snyder-Phillips ("Sni-Fi" we called it) spending a lot of time goofing off and playing guitar. It was the year that a grad student named Jim Fleming started an on-campus "coffeehouse" called Mariah. Mariah promised to bring in the top folk and blues acts to do concerts on campus for 2 or 3 nights at a 1 or 2 dollar ticket. (That math is as astounding now as it was appealing then.) Their first show was with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
They were great Friday night. Even though they seemed to be having one of their famous feuds onstage the two bluesmen were in their prime and thoroughly captivating. I had never seen them live -- though I had a few of their records worn down to scratches. I was planning to go back the next night too.
Saturday morning I was inspired to play my guitar. My roommate was sleeping in so I slung my Martin over my back and headed down to the basement of the dorm, where things were always dead in the AM. There I played for an hour or so, when a buddy -- who shared my tastes in music -- happened by. He said with a beaming face "Did you know Sonny and Brownie are staying in our dorm? They're in the guest room right upstairs!"
I said I thought that was cool and returned to my guitar. "Come on! I want to introduce you to them!" he said and prodded me upstairs.
"I don't think we should bother them," I said. "No no no, it'll be cool!" he assured me, as he knocked on their door.
I wasn't really thinking clearly or I would have told my friend not to be an ass and leave these poor guys alone. But I stood there like an oaf with my guitar as Brownie answered the door and graciously asked us in.
"This is my friend and he plays guitar really well!" was how I was cheerily introduced to Brownie. The man was of about 57 years, which at the time seemed very old indeed. He looked at me skeptically and said "That's a nice Martin guitar you got -- don't you have a case for it?" I said it was up in my room. Then he asked me to play him a tune.
I don't remember what I played, but Brownie nodded in approval. He said I reminded him of Doc Watson or the Carter Family. He said he liked that hillbilly stuff -- used to play it when he was a kid. "Now they won't let me," he scowled.
I played a few tunes for him. He watched seriously and then pronounced, "I'm gonna play my guitar with you. But you're so good, I'm gonna have to change my strings first." I was about ready to bust at that. My head must have grown 2 hat sizes. I watched as he changed his strings. He liked Black Diamond strings -- extra light. "Light as I can get 'em," he told me. I was using extra lights then too, so I thought I was really in the know.
It was about this time I noticed that in the next room of the suite Sonny Terry was sitting on the side of his bed. Fully clothed, but just sitting there quietly with his hands folded. Brownie told me of all sorts of things as he smoked cigarettes and changed his strings. He said you could drink whiskey and play guitar at the same time as long as you didn't quit doing either. Stop either activity and you're in trouble. He said he once drank a whole quart of whiskey while he was playing his guitar and stayed sober as a judge. But once he put down his guitar he "couldn't find the floor."
He took all six strings off before putting on the fresh set. When he was done we played together for more than an hour. We played mostly blues. He was insistent on calling the key and the number of bars -- 8, 12, or 16 -- before each song, even when the changes were obvious. "All blues aren't alike" he said several times. Either he thought this was a lesson I should learn, or it was a fact of life he needed to speak.
In those days I tended to play too fast and put all my favorite licks in every song. And looking back, Brownie was probably planning to change his strings that afternoon anyway. But he went out of his way to make me feel like an equal. It was a wonderful gift he gave me, his afternoon. That night on stage he saw me in the audience and gave me a wink and a point with his finger. He was still mad at Sonny. And Sonny never did budge from that bed the whole time I was playing with Brownie.
Mariah Coffeehouse had a good run of four or five years. I became an early favorite as an opening act and opened for a lot of great acts there over the years -- Lightning Hopkins, Buddy Guy, Rambling Jack Elliott, Steve Goodman, Boys of the Lough and several more. It was a great education in stagecraft as well as an opportunity to meet some truly great talent. After the first few seasons Jim Fleming went on to start a talent agency in Ann Arbor which now is famous for its roster of singer songwriters.
Sonny and Brownie eventually split up. The last time I saw them as a duo, they didn't speak to each other at all, nor did they play together -- they took turns doing solos. It was sad to watch. They really could cook when they were "on." I think musically and personally, they tugged each other in different directions. Sonny was all about rhythm and drive. His songs were often wonderfully hypnotic and repetitious. He made the mouth harp dance. On the other hand, Brownie was into subtle word play and a smooth sophistication in his chord choices. He painted pictures with his songs. These two different artistic temperaments could make for a great blend, but eventually tore the men apart.
I never played with Brownie again, though I did have a spirited session with Sonny at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the early 1980's. Both have now passed. Brownie died in Oakland California in 1996, a decade after Sonny. Brownie McGhee was, as most of the great bluesmen were, a philosopher. And I learned more from him in one day than with a whole term of certain college professors.
Well, it took the courts nearly 50 years to do it, but finally somebody noticed that if you force someone pledging allegiance to the USA also to acknowledge fealty to Jehovah, it might be unconstitutional. And of course, the majority of god-fearing pledgers are seething over the ruling.
I think the San Francisco court was right. The words "under God" should never have been inserted into the pledge back in '54, in the first place. (It was at the height of McCarthyism and the Knights Of Columbus led the push to put "under God" into the pledge -- they probably would have rather had "under Christ" but were playing nice to the Jewish minority. See my flag day thoughts about the history of the pledge)
It's not as though the "god" in "under God" is some unspecific deity. This is obviously the Judeo-Christian monotheistic big guy, aka Jehovah or Yaweh. Don't think so? You say it's a generic god we are "under." Well, try these substitutions on for size, some of the more popular conceptions of god these days in America. Run these other options up the flag pole and see who salutes:
...one nation under some higher power, indivisible...
...one nation under a collective sense of humane ethics, indivisible...
...one nation under a greater cosmic intelligence, indivisible...
...one nation under a spirit of unity & well being, indivisible...
...one nation under Love, indivisible...
Hoo boy, that last one would never have a chance! No, it's the "one true" God with a capital "G" that the pledge intends. And the pledge might as well name him -- Jehovah, Yahweh, or YHWH, (but not Allah) -- because he's the only god who will get the votes in Washington. No other named deities would ever do:
...one nation under Krishna, indivisible...
...one nation under Ormuzd, indivisible...
...one nation under "the Goddess," indivisible...
Those would get Rush Limbaugh excited, eh?
Just imagine you -- or your children -- being forced to recite one of the above pledges every day. Your only other option would be to stand as a mute outsider when every "normal" person holds their hearts and says the words as a "true" American. That's exactly how a non-believer feels when the current pledge is said.
Now it is true that most Americans do indeed believe in the one all-powerful god of the bible. The pledge as it exists is agreeable to most Americans. But this country was founded on the principal that "most do" does not equal "all must." We are not all mono-theists. There are a vast number of deists in this country (even if they don't all articulate their belief) and millions of agnostics who usually go along with the occasional pledge or prayer so as not to rock the boat. And there are pantheists as well, along with the occasional pagan and atheist. There are even mono-theists who worship a (gasp) different God.
Remember that the original pledge began "I pledge allegiance to my flag, and to the republic for which it stands..." It was in the anti-immigrant furor of the early 1920's that paranoid patriots changed "my flag" to "the flag of the United States of America" to be sure that no-one was secretly pledging to some other flag while holding their hearts.
In the current climate it is not unthinkable that there could be a move to expand "under God" to "under the one true God of Abraham" so that nobody could be secretly pledging to other dark powers while holding his or her heart.
No, I say let people worship and honor the higher power of their choice -- or not -- on their own dime. When it comes to pledging allegiance to the United States of America, we should just be one nation, under law, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
For all -- not just the "godly."
copyright Joel Mabus 2002