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.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Coal Dust

The nexus of the LGBT community and the Muslim community created by the flash point of the Orlando massacre is a dangerous moment for two minority populations here in the US. We're already seeing Republican politicians refusing to accept the obvious fact that nearly everyone killed and injured at the Pulse nightclub was gay as being anything but a random accident of chance. This weird denial of reality, which is exhibited by a number of senators and congressmen, is grounded in the right wing politics they maintain, which includes a total denial of the fact that there is a LGBT community, or that such a community deserves any sort of acknowledgement and protection. Same sex marriage may be the law of the land, but much of the right wing takes the same position about that as they do with Roe V. Wade. And it's being proven, with every stumbling block law passed, state by state, to make legal abortion de facto illegal, that there's more than one way to deal with moral progress that conflicts with accepted prejudice. As Rachel Maddow proved when she held the last innocent conversation with Rand Paul that he would ever have, states rights is still viewed by many as a powerful tool of reactionary forces. For that matter, on nearly every front the progress of the Civil Rights struggles of the '60s is being tested, from voting to public schools to housing to hiring. De facto is a bridge too far. The buses are being parked. (For much more on this aspect of the situation, see: http://www.sadlyno.com/archives/40836 )

Meanwhile, people are calling today for the actual outlawing of the religion of Islam in the United States, and Mr. Trump is perhaps only stopping one dependent clause short of that when he continues to call for a ban on immigrating muslims, the constant surveillance of muslim Americans (Mateen was an American citizen, born in the same city as Donald Trump). What could be more perfect, from the standpoint of the bigots and white supremacists, than to pit one hated community against another. Mr Obama the other day made an incontrovertible point when he said that singling out American Muslims for special surveillance would be un-American, or as he put it, "that's not the America we want." Former Ambassador John Bolton, responding on Fox News shortly thereafter, said essentially "who says?" He accused Mr. Obama of "snark." Mr. Trump suggested Mr. Obama was on the side of ISIS.

I hope we can all recall the remarkable atmosphere just after 9/11. From the media to Hillary Clinton there was precious little objection to mounting a military intervention in Afganistan, and shortly to staging the Iraq War. The thousands of citizen protesters to these wars were brushed aside as unworthy of notice. The few eloquent voices in the Congress, mostly black women, were ignored.

Mr. Trump is now espousing the fundamental doctrine of the Nazi. He says in speeches that muslims "cannot assimilate." This was exactly Hitler's complaint about Jews. They remain "other." They're "not like us." Mrs. Clinton's responses to Orlando are more nuanced to be sure, but also accept much of the "them/us" rhetoric of the moment. As someone asked, what would we be saying if Mateen was Lutheran, or Southern Baptist. No one talked of outlawing a religion or even a religious faction when back in the winter a former North Carolinian slaughtered some innocent people at a Denver Planned Parenthood clinic, no matter that he was spouting scripture.

One or two more escalations of essentially random events and the American public might be pushed over the edge into fascism with nothing but the feather of Trump's incoherent rhetoric. Fear magnifies. It's exactly what happened to our little cat, Kirby, a few weeks ago. He couldn't help himself. His deepest instincts, to stay alive, took over, and he began to mistrust everything, including us, his "people." It took us a week to coax him back. Today he sleeps in the window in the cool morning breeze, and that week in the woods is hardly a memory. We--us humans--are mammals, just like him, ten fingers and toes, all the rest, just bigger brains. Deep down in our brains sleeps the fear response, the voice that screams run, run now, don't stop. Like Sheila O'Malley on September 12, 2001, we can find ourselves crouching under a bench in Central Park because a fighter jet has passed low overhead.

It is odious to vote for the Clintons, who are little better than Rockefeller Republicans and far far too interested in their own financial well-being. It is probably likely that before the first term of Hillary Rodham Clinton is over we will be watching new impeachment hearings on the teevee. Or perhaps turning them off, night after night, in utter disgust. The right wing, the white supremacists and the oligarchy, have pursued the Clintons since they achieved national power because they have obvious flaws, be it "bimbo eruptions" or an ill-considered private email server, or an odd coincidence of incredible speaking fees and friendly banking legislation or the lack thereof. It's not even policy, it's just power with the right. If Clinton wins it will be in part because Trump is so much a Nazi that the oligarchy perceives the obvious financial downside of an out and out war with the religion of Islam. German industry did not benefit from Hitler, not in the end. The industrial power of Germany eventually recovered because Germany was utterly defeated, Berlin in a state of rubble. Why, the oligarchy surely asks itself, go there again.

The question now is, can democracy be buffaloed by screaming fear. The beast slouches towards Bethlehem at the start of this summer of 2016. At the top is Berlin, 1945. That's the Reichstag in the background, abandoned and in ruins.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Forging Your Own Handcuffs Does Not Yield Good Mental Health

Of course Mr. Trump got the facts about the Orlando massacre all wrong. Mateen was an American citizen, born ritecheer. His parents are indeed from Afganistan. I'm glad we (America) gave them a safer place to raise a child, and very sorry things turned out so awfully for them and their family. Meanwhile, Omar Mateen worked for a security company which has been cited for abusing detainees, and has a checkered history with the Guantanamo prison. And as an expert on terrorism said last night on the Chris Hayes show (I think it was), it's remarkable that after two security interviews with the FBI Mateen could still buy a semi-automatic rifle at the drop of a hat, no questions asked. One of the problems America has with its absurdly weak gun laws is that there is apparently little coordination between agencies. My guess is that the people at the gun store had no idea that Mateen was a dubious customer. Of course given that it was a gun store, they might also have swallowed all the NRA incoherence about how every weapon is a possible defensive weapon. And indeed, Mateen was on the face of it a "good guy" because he was already employed in the vast private security industry. They're all good guys, right. (Remind me to tell you, sometime, about my 10 days in the private security industry, back in the winter of 1970, in San Francisco. My scariest co-worker was a guy just back from Vietnam, who had his own pistol and was looking to wup some ass.)

The other salient thing about Mateen is, he was a regular at the Pulse night club where he went on the rampage. See:


Some quotes from the story:

Jim Van Horn, 71, told the Associated Press Mateen was a “regular” at the Pulse nightclub where the murders took place. “He was trying to pick up people. Men,” he said. “He was a homosexual and he was trying to pick up men. He would walk up to them and then he would maybe put his arm round them or something ... That’s what people do at gay bars. That’s what we do.”

But when asked why she thought he went regularly to a gay club, his ex-wife Sitora Yusufiy told CNN: “When we had gotten married he confessed to me about his past that was recent at that time, and that he very much enjoyed going to clubs and the nightlife … I feel like it’s a side of him or a part of him that he lived but probably didn’t want everybody to know about.” Asked if she thought he was gay, she said: “I don’t know.”

Mr. Trump leaps immediately to the accepted presumptive prejudices of the Republican Party he is the face of. It's muslims. And Omar Mateen is transformed into an Afgani immigrant because to the GOP if you ain't white you ain't Murican. Trump even brags that he "predicted" this atrocity. No doubt his apologists, including Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader are even as we speak constructing their sophisticated arguments. And here in NC the Legislature says yet again that HB-2 is the LAW, although I was pleased to see Sunday night that Greensboro sports a big billboard calling for the law's repeal. I would have stopped to snap a pic but it wasn't a safe place to stop, the view being from a busy bridge. Next trip I'll get you a shot.

What's HB-2 got to do with the massacre? Only that it's one more message that if you're "different" in this here Murica you might ought to keep your head down. Every such law puts a target on the backs of the "different." Their very identity is a mark of shame according to laws like HB-2. And of course ISIS is apparently fine with draconian measures. If you're just a Christian they might cut off your head. Be a homosexual and they'll throw you off a building. Pulse-Damascus has been shuttered for some years.

Some Middle East experts were laughing at Mateen's contradictions. He apparently supported both ISIS and Hizbullah, two terrorist factions who are at war with each other. What Mateen liked was power. There's a whole strain in the gay world about that. It runs from the Log Cabin Republicans up at the polite end of the spectrum, to the leather bars and muscled guys with Nazi tattoos down close to where Mateen lived. But the most salient feature of Mateen's personality, seems to me, might have been that he was closeted. I'd imagine that being closeted would cause, at least in some, a pressure-building rage. My guess is, every visit to Pulse made Mateen, in the end, very angry at himself. He didn't want to go there, and he did.

This is why American homosexuals came to throw off the closeted life in the late 1960s. They understood that living such a life was too painful. But the right wing still can say, truthfully, that in a number of countries in the world today, to be a homosexual is to invite murder, and in some cases even execution by the state. I believe our ally and major fuel supplier Saudi Arabia numbers among the states that kill you if you're gay. You might consider that at your next fill up. So Trump can sneer, from the podium of his next America First Rally, that homosexuals still have it good in the USA, and if some gay pride feller wavea a flag in protest Trump can nod to people who are fine with punching the guy to the door. Then Trump can talk about 2nd Amendment rights. He's for 'em. Give a few "good guys" a few AR-15s, add in a darkened crowded bar, and you've got Pekinpah's battle of bloody porch for real.

I paraphrased Tennessee Williams on Brando in the last post. You might wonder why Brando was so good in Streetcar. How did he muster that rage, when he "cleans" the table. What's he so angry about? What, for that matter, is Trump so angry about? His anger blinds him, that's for sure. He gets nearly every fact about the Orlando massacre wrong.

The general media is doing that too, by the way. Over and Lawyers Guns and Money it's been pointed out in several posts that horrible though it is, Orlando is not the worst American massacre. Those "honors" go to white American racists in the south, and to people like General Custer and Chivington, in the post Civil War American west. It is true that in the earlier massacres it took a number of people with weapons to outdo Mateen's single AR-15. And as some other blogger noted, McVeigh did his killing with fertilizer, and he was an avowed Christian.

The fuse was lit a while back.

More reading: http://www.juancole.com/2016/06/rightwing-homophobia-terrorism.html