Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Thinking: So much to learn
I’ve been trying, for the last week, to write the liner notes for Red Heart the Ticker’s new record. I want to say something succinct and not-too-sentimental about my grandmother and her music making and this place and why I’ve chosen to make a record of my own from the songs she collected. But the trouble is this: I keep wanting to expand each sentence beyond the appropriate confines of record liner notes. I want to write about how my grandmother came to this part of Southern Vermont at twenty, the mother of a two-year-old with another on the way (my dad), and lived, for a year, in a sugar house in the woods below her in-laws’ house before finding a place of their own. And how that place they did find—what is now a beautifully restored 1803 farmhouse on a hill with a view with running water and a furnace and dishwasher and light switches et al—at that point was a shell of a house: white paint chipping, broken windows and doors, floors eaten by porcupines, without insulation, or electricity, or running water, or telephone lines, or neighbors. Of how, too broke to hire anyone else to work on the house, my grandfather worked two jobs (teaching science at the newborn Marlboro College and, on weekends, working at the Estey Organ factory in Brattleboro), cut fifteen chords of wood each summer, and fixed the house, inch by inch, nail by nail, in his “free time.” And my grandmother? A mother of two, with yet another on the way, planted an enormous vegetable garden and started baking mountains of whole-wheat bread.
What I want to write about is how my grandmother’s relationship with these old songs I am singing is so different than my own; how she learned them and sang them as a way to fend off the deep loneliness that found her. She bore five children before the house got electricity, or telephone poles. My grandfather’s brother was doing research in Panama and my grandfather would join him there, for stretches of the winter, to help count birds and bugs and identify plant leaves, leaving my grandmother, with three, four, five babies to tend to, in a house on a nearly impassable road, without neighbors, without lights, for weeks at a time. What did she do? She sang these songs. To her children. Around the fire. They were wild children; still are. But they sat still for old ballads about murders and drownings and lost loves and Robin Hood’s merciless protection of the poor. It makes my singing seem so blithe.
But see? Here I am, meandering, taking excursions, telling too much of this human story, when all I really need to say is the name of my grandmother, and the name of the songs.
And I would want to say, too, how my grandmother used to work as an artist in the schools in Tucson, Arizona, and found that the only way to get the kids on the wrong side of the tracks to be quiet was to sing the murder ballads—the real dark and bloody ones—and how that has always seemed to me an amazing cross-cultural phenomenon.
Or of how, when my grandmother was a girl, she lived in a National Forest near Bakersfield, California and rode thirty minutes on the mail truck through the lettuce fields with a kid named Fernando to get to school, singing songs in Spanish the entire way.
See? Too much!
Too much for liner notes, too little for a book. And there’s another problem, too: I can’t help but make it sentimental. See how it leaks out, a tender juice, between the lines? I am reading Wells Tower now, a funny writer, a smart writer, a loquacious writer, who does not defer to these sentimental pinings. He writes with wit and irony and a perceptive eye, not drooping, as I do, can’t help but do, towards the purple heart.
But oh well. Tender-juiced I am. And these liner notes? What will they be? And more importantly, what will become of all that gets discarded?
Monday, March 21, 2011
Friday, March 18, 2011
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Sunday, March 6, 2011
Saturday, March 5, 2011
I think she's right. And so here's my initial round of alternative names:
virtual log cabin
trailer at camp nowhere
Terrible, all of them. Really, I'm posting this because I'd love to hear your ideas. Pray tell!
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
I have a 9x12 black and white photo of my grandmother and I from 1981, taken at the Old Songs music festival. We’re sitting in the grass on a hillside, my grandmother’s bangs slick with sweat, her eyes looking off into the distance. I’m three years old and I’m sleeping in her arms, my small limbs limp across her thighs.
My brother and I used to travel all over in the backseats of her blue touring van. We slept at the edge of stages at folk festivals and concerts. I knew those songs like they were water. It’s a body kind of knowing, the melodies and her singing. The picture almost says it all: about her, and about me. About being held by someone strong like that. When they die it’s a strange thing that happens.
In 2006 in the northwest room of her house I watched and heard my grandmother's final breaths—far apart, slow with morphine, the raw and astonishing gasp of each one after we thought we’d heard the last. And then no more came. And something escaped, loosened. But that’s when the surprise came. I looked at the bed and the wall and her. She wasn’t gone. She was still in the room. She was in our singing and she was in the house and she was in our bodies. I could feel her there, the fierce love she’d planted in us. That deep, unquestioning love. The strength of those arms that had held us, every one, and would have fought for us, and died for us, and wept for us. I knew right then that if you live this life right you won’t ever die. Just look at her face in that photo; she isn’t the kind of person who dies.
I don’t say this to be sentimental. I say it because I mean it. I miss her, yes—the way she was rude and funny and passionate and direct and made me laugh. But she’s not gone. Her love is planted so deep it’s the taproot spreading down through my feet. Her music is still the brightest thing I hear. Look at that face. She was a mountain and a mountain lion at once. She was tender, vulnerable, proud, easily hurt, but when she loved you it was like a rock planted under you. Sweet with trickling water.
When I hear her sing “My Dearest Dear” I know why my grandfather can’t listen to her records. To listen to her records makes her too close and too far away at once. It makes her something of the past. A false-lover, like in all those songs. It’s when you close your eyes that she’s yours. That you can feel that rock and that root. That you can hear her. That you can feel her. That you can let your limbs surrender, knowing those arms will hold you for as long as you dare to dream, for as long as you need to feel brave.