Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Trip to the Mountains

Our little combo played Friday night and Saturday morning up in Big Stone Gap, VA, at the Home Crafts Festival, which has been going on at Mountain Empire Community College for several decades now. We used to play a lot up in this general area, what should be called the State of Appalachia if the people who wanted all the abundant resources the area contained didn't make sure that a unified democratic voice emanating from the region was smothered by the amalgam of actual states which each contain bits and pieces of Appalachia and control their bits from fairly afar. On the way to Big Stone Gap you pass through some of the most romantic scenery in the world, and if you look close (not a good idea if you're driving, because there's a sharp curve with a 10 degree grade coming up p.d.q.) you'll glimpse some mountains with "removed" tops, and now and then drive under a tipple hauling off the scenery for Mr. Peabody's next coal train, the 3:19. The L&N, however, don't stop here anymores.

The crafts part of the craft festival is what these things have become these days. There are sprinkles of true Appalachian home crafts. I saw some really nice hand-made brooms, for example. There are plenty of booths featuring geegaws from other lands as well, and there was a sample Ram truck from this year's crop to admire if you've got the money for a machine that will like all such wear seriously out in some number of years, money that used to buy a good-sized house. But on the other hand, we've all gotta have wheels or resort to walking. Merle can wish all he wants about a Ford and a Chevy, but like I sang on Saturday morning, the money keeps getting smaller and the rent keeps going up. This is a way of keeping the real timbers in view in the land of the curio shoppe.

The music was great. Dale Jett and his band was there. Dale is carrying on the real Carter Family sound, because he is a real Carter, son of A.P.'s daughter Janette. Tom T. Hall has even made a film about Dale, called the Dale Jett Story. Check it out. The amazing Ed Snodderly was also there. His songs are really wonderful. I got to listen to him from the audience, as it was some time before I had to go back stage and get myself in mind to play. He sang a song which referenced Charles Bukowski, which is as cool a thing as my bandmate Mike Craver's mention of Wittgenstein in a song he wrote some years back. I cornered Ed about the Bukowski thing after his set, partly just to see if I had heard right. Then we agreed that Post Office is a hell of a novel, and that it's kinda unfortunate that the documentary film about Bukowski features him kicking his girlfriend of the moment, as that kinda takes the edge of the romance that comes out of his work. It is important to note, at this point, that Robert Frost has his bunions as well.

Doug Dorshug was there doing the sound, and a great job it was. I had breakfast with him at the motel on Saturday morning, and we discussed the long-running memoir his old bandmate with the Highwoods, Walk Koken, was embarked on at the Old Time Herald. "I hope he doesn't get too deep in the details," Doug said. I mentioned the Bukowski documentary as an example of the problem. Maybe it's just part of the territory though. Philip Roth says that if you're going to write you can't expect to stay friends with your family. This most recent chapter of the memoir included the explanation for how Highwoods ended up at the Smithsonian Festival in 1973, which I was also at, playing my last gig with the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, then riding off in Watson's red VW for the Red Clay Ramblers' first road trip. Ain't life strange. Here we were, 41 years later, sitting in a motel in Southwest Virginia, shooting the breeze about the good old days.

When I got home I ran into this essay about the rotten, pestilent heart of American conservatism. It should be required reading amongst the young, though there's so much to understand between the lines that it's possible that a lot more pre-requsite reading is actually demanded before true understanding can be achieved. They'd best get it soon. These wolves have been gnawing at the foundations for a damn long time, and if you aren't shocked by mountaintop removal, what does it take? Here's the link:

A couple of quotes:

In short, Frum actually thinks that conservatism means forcing the poor and middle-class to sacrifice government programs whose existence is, or may be, in their economic interest. And why? Near as I can figure, for the sake of making over the poor and middle-class into more agreeable objects of aesthetic contemplation for (wealthy) conservatives, whose tastes run to: Donner party-like look-alike doughty leatherstocking hard-bitten frontier-type workers (respectful hats in hand.) And the word for this aesthetic transformation is: making people free. And somehow the economy is going to be OK.

Another, actually the author quoting Orwell:

“So long as the machine is there, one is under an obligation to use it. No one draws water from the well when he can turn on the tap … Deliberately to revert to primitive methods, to use archaic tools, to put silly difficulties in your own way, would be a piece of dilettantism, of pretty-pretty arty and craftiness. It would be like solemnly sitting down to eat your dinner with stone implements. Revert to handwork in a machine age, and you are back in Ye Old Tea Shoppe or the Tudor villa with the sham beams tacked to the wall.”

Personally, I have no problem with plugging in the fiddle. I agree with Orwell that whatever music you're making ought to be realistic. The best music I listened to driving up the crooked road to Big Stone was James McMurtry's live CD from "Aught Three," and in particular "Lights of Cheyenne." That's one killer song. That he uses something of the same melody as "Goodbye Old Paint" is but a feature of its perfection. "Choctaw Bingo" is flashier (and great). "Lights" is deeper. But in the context of the Holbo piece, the Orwell quote refers to the whole "safety net" system which we have devised since Roosevelt's day to mitigate the realities of life, health, and aging, not to mention such man-made blights as outsourcing, the apparent pride of the entire political elite in 2014.

We're in the midst of a counter-revolution these days. Even the usually optimistic Digby's Hullabaloo has become worried about the states-rights trend, the obviously exploitation by the monied "class" of what has always been a deep political fault in the American set-up: states' rights. Numerous states have changed the way we vote, analysing the way we've voted for a few decades and noticing that if you whittle away the groups who vote Democratic by whatever means, you'll end up electing more conservatives. Same system works, apparently, for even constitutionally protected rights such as a woman's right to govern her own body.

Conservatives can wax eloquent about the aesthetic of the can-do spirit in the make-believe history of America they believe in, whilst slaves in fact do all the real work. I bought a spiffy new shirt to wear on stage Friday night that was made in Bangladesh. It was in the western style, with "pearl" snaps for buttons, and a silver thread sewn into the weave. It cost me $15.95 at Walmart, and fortunately nobody gunned me down while I was shopping.

Old time music is in a way a handicraft practiced in the machine age, and even more so when city boys like me take it up. But I'm not selling my artistic choices as righteous politics. We'd better figure out, pretty damn soon, how to get out of this squirrel cage we're running in. Three wars in the Middle East, and counting. The most powerful security state America has ever contained, and counting. The Supreme Court is marching smartly in the wrong direction. Money is now free speech. Kinda gives a leg up to them what can buy all the ink on the planet, don't it.

Let's let James McMurtry take us out today with his version of Goodbye Old Paint:

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