Monday, July 25, 2016

From Roscoff to Amritsar

[Swarna-Jayanti Express, Indian Railway]

I was on a jet plane coming back from France, in 1977 I think it was. There was a chunky red-faced American next to me, maybe from Texas but who knows at this late date. He was claiming that everyone in France spoke perfectly good English, but just weren't willing to be helpful to Americans, and after all “we'd” done for them in World War II. We'd played a little club in Roscoff, which happened to have been near a German submarine base in the war, and Americans had bombed the hell out of Roscoff. There were mostly new high-rise government built apartment buildings, which looked strange in France, although these days the web page for Roscoff features pictures of quaint seaside buildings, so either some of the old Roscoff was left, or they've managed to rebuild with historical accuracy. Some of the patrons of the place we played thought we had a lot of nerve being there, but fortunately our banjo player was a former tackle at Florida State and tended to have no problems with disgruntled folks. I watched him shrug his shoulders at Galax one time, and flip a drunk who'd tried to climb on board several feet out of the pickin' circle. Aside from Roscoff, I never felt like the French were sandbagging, and I always tried my best to order in French. Often after my efforts caused a wry smile in the waiter, I was told to just order in English. On the other hand, it was easy enough to point at the line in the menu, particularly as in France you were in little risk of getting served a poor repast.

This was my first encounter with the cliché of the Ugly American. Of course it's easy to find ugly Americans in America, then and today. They might be a majority. But the cliché was pointed and remarkable at the time. Why would people who speak their native language all know some other language, or want to speak it. We sure don't. Who comes up with some theory that it's all a French joke on us? There's a certain lack of self-awareness at work, which is part of the definition of Ugly American anyways.

So here it is, blazing hot summer of 2016. We're living this summer without air conditioning—so far. The little window air unit we put in is about five years old now, and seemed to be fading last summer, and we're also wanting to get an electrician to come out and upgrade our service. Fans do kinda work, and I felt oddly at home watching “Tough Trains: India” Saturday night on the Globe Trekker show on PBS. The host was Zay Harding, a guy who looks just like Dustin Johnson and probably putts just about the same. He rode a number of trains across the northern part of India with an unseen camera crew that likely stretched Indian patience quite a bit. All of the trains were so packed with people that sometimes our host and many other riders sat in the luggage racks above the seats, and people rode for hours standing on the steps and holding on to hand rails, entirely outside the car.

At one point he stopped in a city where Ramadan was in progress. During Ramadan, muslims fast all day and then feast after sundown. A muslin friend invited him to participate in the feast part. At one point the friend said “the fasting is easy if you believe, and it helps you appreciate those without.” Our American host picked up a big bite of rice and meat and said, “Dig in,” surrounded by hundreds of equally voracious participants in the nightly fast-ending banquet.

The host also did little historic pieces on India in colonial days and at independence. There were terrible massacres of both muslims and hindus along the rail line we were traveling, due primarily to a great fear inculcated by the passive-aggressive fashion in which the British left, creating a partition no one understood between India and the new country of Pakistan. Some administrator from Britain had come out and just drawn some lines on a map, known as the Radcliffe Line, even if the lines went straight through rivers and cities. No one on the ground could see these suddenly crucial lines, or knew for sure which country they lived in, of if someone was going to take their land and stuff and murder them for being suddenly in the wrong country. So they murdered each other, and even now India and Pakistan face each other across this mythical border with nuclear weapons at the ready.

This past week the GOP just nominated the Ugly American for President. I saw a poll this morning that some 60+% of white men are for Mr. Trump. He speaks to their ethnicity; he speaks, as he claimed, “for” them. He wants to ban muslims. The guy who shot up Munich on Friday wanted to ban muslims too, and most of the people he killed were muslims. It took a couple of days for the news to get to our news media that although he had some connection to Iran (he was a German-Iranian), he hated muslims and idolized the Norwegian mass-killer of a couple of years back, Brivik.

At another spot on our train tour we were taken to a lovely park. In April, 1919 there had been a big market going on in the park, in Amritsar, with thousands of people, and a small peaceful demonstration was also happening. The British military administrator of the city, Col. Reginald Dyer, ordered troops to fire on the people in the park until their ammunition was entirely exhausted. Many bullet holes are still in evidence in brick walls around the park, marked with squares of white paint. Over a thousand were killed, some 1500 casualties in all (although Great Britain still officially disputes this number as does the Daily Mail). They counted the spent cartridges to come up with that calculation. This massacre is viewed as one of the two crucial moments leading, eventually, to Indian independence. Churchill hated Gandhi.

These days a great deal of the press, all of one major political party, and some of the other, encourages all of us to see muslims as the fearful “other.” There is almost no depiction of muslims as simply people, just exactly like us. With each turn of this screw, muslims in our midst are put even more at physical risk. Just last year in, of all places, Chapel Hill, NC, three young muslim graduate students, all from my home town of Raleigh, were murdered by a middle-aged red-neck who lived down the parking lot from them in an apartment complex. He liked to brandish his pistol when he complained to the students about their parking space usage. He'd appointed himself parking lot monitor, and enforced his own private rules. People claimed afterwards that it was not religion or ethnic background but parking that motivated his crimes. His trial still awaits. The three children are buried, gone, entirely lost to their grieving parents, who are even forced (this being NC) to publicly dispute whether this was in fact a “hate crime.”

In the past couple of weeks eight policemen have been assassinated by two different black men who snapped, perhaps because there was, in their mind, one too many headlines recounting the shooting of a black man or woman in trivial and harmless circumstances—circumstances which even on the same day do not lead to similar shootings when the civilian happens oddly enough to be white. Republicans tend to say that it's the headlines, not the facts, that are the problem. That's an idea Herr Trump would surely support.

There are over a billion muslims in the world. Close to a billion people, just trying to get along, in large majority living in circumstances which most Americans would find daunting in the extreme. They do not yet blame us for the heat, or the floods, though in time they may. Everyone still wants to ride, be it a Mercedes or a scooter. Perhaps Mr. Trump's supporters have some dim inkling of these deeper connections, which are like the misguided 2nd Amendment supporters at the initial constitutional convention, who in fact feared the slave uprisings that might at any time explode, no matter what their theological apologists might preach on Sundays in Richmond and Charleston, Savannah and Biloxi. The last viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, who appointed Cyril Radcliffe to draw the lines in 1947, was in 1979 blown up in his yacht in Donegal Bay, Eire, by the Irish Provisional Army.

For now they ride the trains, muslims, hindus, sikhs, enduring the heat and the crowds of fellow passengers. It is enough to make it through the day. There was a lovely shot at one point in the documentary of several women walking with parcels on their heads, across an empty trestle. Mr. Ailes takes his retirement. Ms Kelly is said to be getting a brand new show, which is compared to Oprah's. I have been assured by political scientists that Trump needs a political apparatus which he has profoundly alienated in order to actually succeed in his quest this fall.

Trump's Democratic opponent, meanwhile, seems not to grasp the alienation she also generates. For all his Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Obama also operates a drone assassination air war, and in Turkey last week a possibly fake revolution was briefly televised. As of today Wasserman-Schultz is gone, which both removes a red flag and implies shenanigans were accomplished. A pure-hearted abstention this fall is a vote for Herr Trump. It's enough to make a person spend the day carefully learning a new fiddle tune. Speaking of which (more or less), Digby featured a post yesterday about a free health clinic at the Wise Virginia County Fairgrounds. That's the very place the guy threw the sno-cone at Jack Herrick during his trumpet solo, back in '77, right after the plane trip with the Ugly American. We were playing Ralph Stanley's bluegrass festival on the way home. Hillbilly sharia I guess it was, like when they killed Ralph's lead singer, Roy Lee Centers, a few years previous. Ain't no trumpets in bluegrass, you get that? What goes around I guess, whatever that means. It's probably something Trump would say to end a sentence, amirite?

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

5th of July

[The Lewis Gun was manufactured by British Small Arms, better known as BSA. They also made great motorcycles, including a single cylinder model called the Shooting Star which I rode for a few years in the late 1960s. I'm hoping that BREXIT will bring back the BSA, complete with its vertical block seam, its dripping oil and limited life span, and its utter beauty. Take that BMW, and Yamaha.]

On Fathers Day, while I was driving back from Johnson City, Libby's dad was in Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro getting some high grade surgery to repair a shattered lower arm, wrist, and hand. They put in metal plates and screws, and he'll have some issues getting on planes now, except he's unlikely to ever do that again anyways. He also broke his upper arm when he fell after getting up in the mid-night to check his outer door for some reason, something he was never supposed to do, but couldn't remember not to do, the old head-of-the-house routine still there floating around in the old cranium, clear as crystal but unmoored to some extent, while the new stuff, the every day realities, seem more like dreams or imaginings. He'd had a very happy reunion with much of his family, and everyone drove home thinking how well he was doing, all things considered. You have to add that phrase. He's 92. He'd spent the second half of '44 in France and Belgium, and the first half of '45 in Germany.

Last night I was looking into a little cardboard box labeled WW II Memoribilia in black scripto, sitting in his lift chair in his old room where he fell. He was hopefully asleep in the rehab facility a couple of miles away. The family doesn't see him being able to come back to the room, so Libby and I--mostly Libby--were sorting through things. In the little box were a few aluminum German Mark coins. Back in '43 the Germans were making coins out of aluminum because there was no available steel or copper beyond the ravenous war manufacturing machinery. There was also a little horseshoe thing from Rocky Mount Tire--aluminum with a copper penny in the center. I couldn't read the inscription too well, but it seemed like Rudy had possibly gotten that around the time he got on a troop train in Rocky Mount, NC. I figured maybe he kept it in his pocket all through his European travels. Who knows.

There was also a packet of cards and notes Rudy and his wife Lucille had exchanged through the 50 plus years they'd been married, love notes, cards, sweet exchanges of sentiments like "it gets better and better to live with my very best friend." Both of them wrote each other lines like that, start to finish, at the bottom of birthday cards and mother's day cards and father's day cards. Libby shed some tears looking through all of this, these very little bits of a whole life, her mom and dad's life. "This is the last little bit left," she said to me. Lucille died in 2000, a quick unexpected stroke after a happy church event. She woke in the early AM, said to Rudy that she had a terrible headache, then collapsed. She died the following night, having seemingly waited for Libby to arrive from Ocracoke, a long drive with a ferry trip. Among the bits of paper we found a newspaper interview with Libby and I in the Island Breeze, about our CD and our music life on the Outer Banks, from about that time, the turn of the Millennium. What a pretentious concept. I wrote a song about it on my song CD. They even named Budweiser "Mellennium Bud" for a little while (right now they're calling it "American" I think). I quit drinking Bud some years ago, not that I wouldn't take a cold one if I was sitting out in left field in any ball park in this great land of ours.

We're looking for a nursing home for Rudy that will be much closer to home here. Libby's going out this early afternoon to check on a place that's 8 miles away instead of an hour drive. It'll stretch our fleet of 1999 pickup trucks. As we rode back in the deep night last night we were speculating on the current dizzying election cavalcade spinning by like a merry-go-round while we watch from a wood bench that needs some painting before winter. Could it be, we said, that Bill Clinton snookered Trump into running, thus tossing a spanner into the spokes of the already thread-bear Republican Party--the very same Party that had succeeded in actually impeaching him for an absolutely justified Imperial Blow Job that absolutely everyone gets whenever they like--comes with the room Sir. It must be of some delight to the Clintons that Lindsey Graham is in a state of conniption. He was the prosecutor in that Impeachment I believe. Meanwhile, it's reported that our current Attorney General, North Carolinian Loretta Lynch, may well stay on in the post in the coming Clinton Administration. Continuity, continuity. We are also reassured that firebrand Lizzie Warren tells us almost daily that Hillary is a "good listener." That's a good character component surely, and a nice contrast to a guy that apparently listens to no one.

Summer, which simply is, is most definitely here. It's a wet one relatively. All the tick species are thriving, and seem to care little for the mists and sprays we apply to ourselves. it's time to mow the grass again. That seems to keep the critters down. We've got to get some trees felled before the hurricanes arrive in September. Or August. I wrote another song about going to the DQ in the middle of the summer. We don't have a DQ here in Siler, just a Sonic. I never go to the Sonic, but I do think their endless ads are pretty funny. In my song, about a trucker who stops at a DQ, the trucker relates: "It was the middle of the day it was the 6th of July, they was families on vacation and they couldn't decide." All those voters, cones dripping on the floor, blizzards clogging up their straws and their arteries. There should be some Platonic quote to end this, about the fundamental character of democracy. Takes yo pick, good listening grifters or candidates for Emperor. Which wooden horse do you want to ride next? A century ago exactly we were in the middle of the Battle of the Somme, according to Nick Faldo, on the Golf Channel. He said nearly a million people were lost in that battle, which lasted a quarter of a year he related to Terry Gannon, former N.C. State quarterback.

Apparently he was short by a half-million,or possibly he was just talking of Allied losses. The carnage was at any rate indecisive. There's a lesson too.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Down at the Down Home

After the band I used to be in got over being in an off-Broadway play about Jesse James, we started playing music for a living. This job description means traveling much of the time, unless maybe you live in London like Stephan Grappelli, or New York, or a few other places in the world where there's enough traffic to keep some joint going with a house band. Ocracoke, NC, almost works for a couple of months a year, and Libby and I personally found that out back at the turn of the century.

One of the first road trips we did was in 1976. We got a call from a guy named Tank ("what'd you say your name was, Frank?"). He'd heard about us, I'm guessing, from our appearances at the Carter Fold up in Hiltons, VA. The Smithsonian magazine had done a piece on the Fold that featured photos of us and a description of the gig and the place, which was at that time in A.P. Carter's old country store building. Or Tank might have just heard about us from somebody who'd been to see us up there. Anyways, Tank and Ed Snodderly were opening a music joint in Johnson City, TN. It sounded on the phone a lot like the place we played one weekend a month in Chapel Hill, the Cat's Cradle. We sure knew how to play a place like that, and Johnson City was only about four hours away driving US 321, a fine old road Stonewall Jackson would have loved, a road that taught you what mountains really were by the seat of your pants and the quality of your braking system. We put the Down Home on the list of upcoming events.

When we got there they were still banging some nails, and the final inspection had not happened. Tank, a man with boundless energy and a bit of a temper to season his general enthusiasm, got on the horn with the inspector. They were already acquaintances. Tank got'er done, and the show went on. Thus it was that in the annals of musical history the Red Clay Ramblers achieved the distinction of having opened the Down Home Pickin' Parlor in Johnson City. Now and then we still meet someone who says "I was there that night." I wish I had the old set list.

The Down Home has gone on to build a stellar history and reputation. Many of the very best acoustic singers, players, songwriters, have trod her boards. They probably have a list somewhere official. The most notable of all in my book might be Townes Van Zant, one of the greatest American songwriters to ever have lived, not to mention one of the most reckless and star crossed. We played the place more or less once or twice a year during my tenure in the band, as well as playing the big Down Home Festival Tank started tossing out on his farm after things had got rolling. I think the picture of us on the Twisted Laurel album was taken sitting on the front porch of Tank's cabin out there on the place, and he still lives there today. Often we'd also do the Carter Fold while we were in the neighborhood. That would make the trip well worth while. I think the band continued at the Down Home after I left in '81. Libby and I played the place at the end of our trip to the far southwest in '03, and the Craver, Hicks, Watson, Newberry Combo started booking the venue when we got going in '01. Often we'd combine the Down Home with a Fold night, just like in the good old days, and we'd also play Dave Carter's radio show at the ETSU radio station. We'd stay at the Red Roof Inn.

Ed Snodderly contacted Mike a few months back about booking us for the Down Home's 40th Anniversary Show. It turned out Joe was booked on the Prairie Home Companion radio show in St. Louis that night, so Jim, Mike and I decided to do the Down Home as a trio. What the hell. It's the same music, and we know it pretty good by now. I rented a little car at the Greensboro airport on Saturday morning and drove up the old way, through Boone and out 321. It was a sparkling day, and 321 was just as challenging as it was in 1976. I got into J City with an hour to spare before the sound check, and found our lodgings, this time around the Carnagie Hotel just across from the ETSU campus, a tony joint restored from a hotel built by a railroad magnate in the 1890s, which had languished mostly in memory since it burned to the ground in 1903 or so. (There might have been an insurance story there, as the magnate had fallen on hard times due to the depression of 1893. One never knows, as Fats Waller has said to great effect.)

We got over to the DH for the check, and I took some pics of our signage. That's my fiddle case sitting lonely on the afternoon sidewalk. I cropped the photo because I'd inadvertently snapped my index finger at the top corner of the original shot. Ain't computers great, or what? The check went fine. DH has solved all its sound problems long long ago, and has a great stock of mics, speakers, etc. After we'd got our setup marked on the board, we sat and watched the first band of the night, Bill and the Belles, run through a couple of numbers. They do old-time songs all clustered around one mic, just the way the old-time bands did. Great sound, and they knew how to place themselves. Then we just hung out, figured up our set, had some as usual delicious grub courtesy of the house. I'd personally recommend the rice and bean bowl. It saw me through the night.

The place filled up. Half an hour before start they'd posted a Sold Out sign on the door. Old friends filtered in, including my old pals Steve and Maxine, who live up on the north side of Clinch Mountain more or less across the ridge from Hiltons, in a place that's pretty close to Shangri La. Before we started we got to watch Bill and the Belles. They were inspiring! I think they kinda focused our minds on the task at hand. They have posted a few youtubes. Their sound was even better at the DH on Saturday.

After a quick turnaround we jumped on the stage and got 'er going with Tommy Jarrell's Rockingham Cindy. I love to start a show shouting "Where'd you get your whiskey, where'd you get your dram?" Here's more or less the set list. Jim always just writes "tune" for numbers like Cindy. Tank himself introduced us, with memories of that first night and Uncle Wide Load.

Jim had crafted a very nice flow, and we ended up playing Mike and Tommy's "Merchant's Lunch," and then got an encore and did Uncle Dave's "Rabbit in the Pea Patch," which we probably did that first night at the DH, 40 years ago. Another break and the Brother Boys climbed the boards. Was that ever a treat. The Brother Boys feature the remarkable vocal stylings of Eugene Wolf,and they sound something like this:

The Boys put on a fantastic closing set, with a breathtaking range of material and great harmony singing and pickin', but the center of the action is certainly Mr. Eugene, who not only knows countless great songs, but possesses the ability to sing them with such presence that an audience is simply riveted to their seats. The Boys are a musicians' kinda band. At one point fairly early in their set they did a Bill Anderson song in the manner of Billie Holiday. By that I do NOT mean some impersonation of Ms Holiday a la Sedaris, but rather in the artful manner of singing behind the beat which she made famous in the 1940s, after Louis Armstrong had made it famous in the '30s. It ain't easy to do, and Wolf and Snodderly did it to perfection. The Brothers ended up the night with another Uncle Dave song, Jordan Am a Hard Road To Travel I Believe, and before that a Van Zant song to take note of his faint shadow over by the bar. Mr. Eugene could be the best kind of preacher, if he cared to do that sort of thing, if the profession hadn't been pretty much ruined by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham. Oh well.

The night finally dimmed. There was a nice long time afterwards, of hellos and goodbyes and one last Sweetwater IPA (on my part I should say). It was as good a show as you could hear at the best music festival anywhere, and here we were 40 years after in the good old Down Home, Johnson City. The place should sell out every night, and Ed deserves a medal of some kind for having been there from the start all the way to so far. Music is a tricky thing as a business proposition. It can easily break your heart and your spirit if you let it. But on the other hand, it's the best there is, and it got black people through slavery.

Sunday I retraced my steps back down the mountain to Greensboro. I got better mileage going home, which I attribute to the fact that it's much more downhill in that direction. You cross the eastern continental divide up near Boone. There's not much radio in the mountains, and I didn't hear a word about American politics or the state of the nation, just Ms Garmin occasionally chirping up to take an exit. I turned her off once I'd gotten back to Boone, and rode along in silence, with the faint sounds of the night before still floating in my head. Many Happy Returns to the Down Home! We'll return there this coming October 28, right before the Martinsville race.

Footnote: After our set someone came up with an LP, the 1979 live RCR album "Chuckin' the Frizz." (We came close with that title to a Donna the Buffalo moment, eh?) Here at our home pages there's a bunch of nice photos of the show:

My favorite photo is this one, because it captures a little moment that occurs now and then:

This is kinda like finding the bottle with a message you tossed into the waters 30 plus years back. The guy with the bottle says "I found this walking on the beach at Dover, thought I'd look you up while I was in the States." I signed the cover and dated it June 18, 2016.