July 2, 2016

Trains & Vultures (This is not Baltimore)

I wished several times today I'd had my camera with me, but oh well. Word pictures will have to suffice. 

Rode a stretch of the C and O Canal between two  historic train depots. Had a delayed start thanks to the fact that they're still active depots-- At the one where I chose to begin, the barriers were down at the crossing of the one road leading down from the parking lot to the towpath (and a boat ramp and campground), and there sat a train that seemed to stretch from one end of the town to the other.  Every now and then it'd shudder, the couplings between the cars would clank, it'd move forward a few feet, then go still and just sit there again.  Got tired of waiting after a while and rode to the end of the parking lot and then onto a gravel road that led up past a lumber yard and into the woods.  Doubled back after a bit to find the train gone and the tracks crossable.

Few other stretches of the C and O towpath illustrate as well as this one the building race that took place between the canal and railroad companies.  For a handful of miles, there are only a couple hundred feet between the tracks and the canal. Taking a break at one of the old lockhouses, I marveled at the creativity of railroad graffittos as another long freighter oozed by. Those graffiti guys really should be graphic artists. Despite much of it being illegible, the fonts they come up with are often pretty spectacular.  

If you wanted to learn about the variety of rails and rail-tie fasteners, the maintenance yard behind the station at the far end of my ride would be a good place to start, with weed-grown but neatly labeled sections piled with rusted iron pieces.  I was especially curious about the sections of rail lying under the sign that read "FROGS".   Stood for a long time in front of a partly boarded-up and condemned maintenance building with some terrific brickwork, watching a grey-headed black vulture preen and stretch its wings on the sill of a glass-less second-story window. Another was perched at the edge of a hole in the roof.  I expected them to become alarmed and fly off, but they didn't.  The one in the window just sat there and looked at me while I looked at it, then it preened and stretched, and stretched and preened, occasionally turning to look into the room behind it.  It looked back into the room often enough that I began to wonder if they were a mated pair with a nest in that room.  The one on the roof periodically shrugged its shoulders and half-lifted its wings behind it.  Like all vultures, they were butt-ugly and absolutely gorgeous at the same time and I wonder how many people would understand what a huge kick I got out of standing there watching these two that were so relaxed despite my presence.

Almost lost my bike at the end of the ride, thanks to another train across the crossing in the same place as the one at the beginning of the ride.  It'd apparently been there for a while, judging by the number of cars and fellow bike riders waiting on the road up from the canal and boat ramp.  I struck up conversation with an older gent who'd ridden down from his house in town, just a block or so up from the train station.  He said it was the first time in all his years living there that he'd gotten stuck by a train like that.  We watched a couple of kids climb up the ladder at the back of a freight car at the road crossing, scurry across and down the ladder on the other side.  

After chatting a few more minutes, the old guy said he was tempted to do what the kids had done, if only he didn't have his bike with him.  I suggested we team up, one climb the ladder onto the platform at the end of the freight car, the other lift up our two bikes, then one climb down and the other hand the bikes down.  Well, he didn't quite get the plan.  We walked over and he immediately lifted his bike up onto the platform, then climbed up after it and began lowering it down the other side, saying he just wanted to see if it'd work.  Teamwork would've been more efficient, but he obviously didn't see it that way so instead of waiting for him, I said "Hell with it" and lifted my own bike up as he was climbing down the other side.  Got it up onto the platform and was trying to get it balanced enough to let go and climb up when the train gave a bit of a sigh and began to move. So I grabbed the bike and began to pull it back down, only to have the front wheel turn sideways and become lodged against the handrails of the ladder. The train was only up to walking speed but gradually quickening and I only had so much pavement left before it moved beyond the road crossing.  Visions of my bike hobo'ing its way to who-knows-where flashed through my head as I stretched and struggled to reach up and straighten the handlebars, while the older gent stood in the road on the other side of the train and called over "Sorry 'bout that, darlin'!"  Then desperation won out and I got the wheel straightened and yanked the bike down and as the train picked up speed behind me I turned around and grinned a grin of crazy relief to the folks in the pickup truck who'd watched the whole pecadillo and said "Oh well, that's the chance you take when you try to cross a train!"  Then I stood and leaned on my bike in giddy patience as a seemingly interminable number of freight cars went by.

Sitting in the car scribbling all this down so it could be typed later, I watched yet another train go by in the opposite direction.  On one of the cars was a simple graffiti in clear black lines:  "I SEEN A MAN DIE 2 DAY".  

Had a laugh when I stopped for Chinese food on the way home--  The fortune in my cookie read "Fortune truly helps those who are of good judgement."

This is Baltimore, vol.582 (A pictorial)

In and around this part of town--

February 14, 2016

A tale of two pilgimages: From Elvis' house to Jack's

Recently got back from a weekend in Nashville full of cool stuff, starting out the night I arrived by wandering through the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood Art Crawl in order to see Th3 Anomaly, a hallway-spanning, floor-to-ceiling, wall-covering, sci-fi graphic novel featuring Nikola Tesla, Jules Verne, and Sarah Bernhardt (who knew Sarah was a science geek?). Very compelling, entertaining stuff, the scope of which was incredible both in size and the amount of imagination and effort required to create it.

The next day was spent visiting a pair of old cemeteries in Franklin, hiking through Stones River, one of the few preserved Civil War battlefields in the Nashville area, and hopping off of route 840 to find the road leading to a castle overlooking the highway.  But the first of the dual purposes of this trip began on Monday, with a smooth three-hour cruise along route 40 from Nashville to Memphis to visit Graceland.

As they say on the website, "For fans of Elvis Presley, Graceland is the ultimate pilgrimage", and I'm a big fan of both Elvis and pilgrimages. And, seeing as how it's
 been just over two years since I plunged purposefully down the Elvis rabbit hole, the timing of this visit also made it a late anniversary celebration.

Coming down route 51, I had expected to turn off the highway onto a side street or two to get to the house, but there it was, right smack on the side of the four-lane road. Should've realized, considering 51's been christened Elvis Presley Boulevard but, no, it was a disorienting surprise.  It might have been a smaller neighborhood road back in the day, but not anymore, not with all the traffic and gas stations and fried chicken joints and the Graceland visitor's complex across the street. So I girded myself for a schlock attack and headed in to buy my ticket for the Platinum level "Elvis Experience", plus airplanes.  

You apparently can't walk up to Graceland anymore, unless you go early in the morning when the grounds are open for free walk-ins to the meditation garden where Elvis and his parent are buried. At any other time, you have to grab an iPad and headphones and hop a shuttle for a ride across 51 and up the long driveway to the front door.

My favorite photo from one of the visitor center exhibits, snagged from here

The thing most people seem taken aback by right away is how small Graceland is. It's probably half the size of today's average McMansion, and even cozier considering the number of people who inhabited it and just plain hung out there when E was still alive. 

Borrowed from here. Follow the link and click on the image there to be taken to the
360-view images used in the Graceland iPad tour.
Only the ground floor and a couple of basement rooms are open to the public. Visitors are told before entering that the upstairs area, and Elvis' bedroom specifically, are kept private and closed. His bedroom and the bathroom in which he died have apparently been completely untouched since his death (though, of course, someone scrounged up before-death and after-death photos for the morbidly curious amongst us). The closest you can get is the bottom of the stairs.

Borrowed from here, where there are a lot more great shots

But his parents' ground-floor bedroom is viewable, complete with a few of his mother Gladys' dresses hanging in her closet. What was it about those modest dresses hanging there that brought tears to my eyes?
From here
And I began sniffling again when the tour got to the kitchen and I imagined his grandmother, Minnie Mae (or, as Elvis called her, "Dodger"), holding court and cooking for the family.
Another shot from here
The basement, with its mirrored-ceiling tv room and tucked-fabric walls and ceiling pool room, is where things began to get noticeably ostentatious.
From here. That creepy-eyed little white monkey had brothers on display elsewhere in the house. 
From here
And then, of course, you come back upstairs next to the jungle room. Doesn't everyone have a jungle room with a built-in waterfall wall?

From here
Then you're suddenly stepping out the back door, following the walk-way to the carport and E's father Vernon's office, then to the trophy building, which is a series of rooms displaying gold and platinum records, movie posters and memorabilia, and awards for everything from music to philanthropy. Then into the racquetball house, which has been filled with displays of those famous/infamous jumpsuits.  And then you're back outside and the walkway wraps around to the side of the house to Elvis' meditation garden. One of the things that I was most surprised to learn about Elvis was the breadth of his spirituality. I'd assumed he was raised deeply Christian, being from the deep south and all. He was, of course, but he apparently explored a vast variety of faiths, reading everything from Kahlil Gibran to very New Age-y sounding stuff.  The meditation garden was built during his lifetime for exactly the purpose its name indicates, and it's perfectly fitting that it would become Elvis' final resting place, along with his parents and grandmother.

From here.
And, yeah, I felt no shame in pulling a Kleenex out of my pocket and wiping my eyes repeatedly while I stood there reading the inscriptions on their graves.

From here
Then it's back onto the shuttle bus and back across Elvis Presley Boulevard to the visitor's complex, where there are a variety of exhibits of his cars, his clothes, his two private planes, and where every single exhibit space dumps you out into another gift shop. Hell, at one point, one gift shop led into another.  The gift shops are totally schlocky, but some of the exhibits are great. And it's all part of the Elvis mythos, all of it, the schlock and the grandeur, the tv sets in every room and the gaudy jumpsuits and the love he felt for his parents and grandmother and whatever his conception of God was. How many people in the history of this world have inspired the kind of joy and rapture that Elvis has? Certainly not many in recent decades. So many people seem to know of his legend as something cheesy, but what he accomplished, not just for himself but for popular music as we know it, was extremely powerful.  The tour of Graceland is definitely a must for anyone even slightly curious about Elvis, but it does not tell the whole story. It tells a lot about the man and the myth, but you need to go elsewhere to really learn about the music.  If the folks running Graceland were smart, they'd add another exhibit space focusing on that aspect of the man's deep and more-complex-than-you'd-expect legacy.

Back in Nashville the next day, I had my second pilgrimage, and a second anniversary celebration. Anyone who's followed my babbling knows I've been to Third Man Records in Nashville many, many times. But on this occasion, just a few days beyond the sixth anniversary of my original White weekend, I was allowed the opportunity to step "behind the curtain", as it were. Third Man has begun offering behind-the-scenes tours as an incentive for things like their annual holiday blood drives. Well, a pal of mine gave of his blood for the second year in a row and was rewarded with pulling a certificate for a tour for 6 people from TMR's pile of mystery gifts. And then he surprised the hell out of a few people, myself included, by inviting us to join him. And then... he got horribly sick and wasn't able to come for the tour himself.  But Third Man honcho Ben Blackwell graciously gave the rest of us well over two hours of his time and has promised a make-up tour for our incredibly generous friend once he recuperates.

Surprise! I have no grand revelations to reveal. Most serious fans know what's contained behind those black, yellow, red, and blue walls, beyond the store-front: Foremost is the Blue Room, a 150-or-so-person live venue for music performances, film showings, and art events; facilities for recording shows in the Blue Room to both tape and acetate; a warehouse/distribution center for the in-house and on-line stores; a photography dark room; the offices from which the entire company is run; and, last but not least, a temperature-controlled, fire-, smoke-, and bomb-proof vault for the master tapes of all of Jack White's music and Third Man recordings.

So for me, the revelation was not so much in seeing what was contained back there, but in how it's all contained, how it all fits within that really not very large complex, how the two buildings are connected (one tall hallway leading from front to back between the two, a second hallway crossing through the first from one building to the other with windows on each side looking out into the larger hallway), how the various design elements flow from one space into the next (matching desks on the loading dock-turned-office space, very graphic wall decor in the graphics dept, gorgeous over-stuffed sofas in the shipping dept...).  I had always imagined trick walls and subterranean chambers, but there were none (at least none that we were shown). There was just a shrewd use of every nook and cranny of space, an eye-boggling mix of seemingly jumbled clutter and and neat, sleek design. And incredible furniture. My eyes kept being drawn to the vintage furniture and light fixtures in every. single. room. Except the graphics department, but they had nifty wall installations instead. But it was everywhere else. The place is a vintage decor lover's wet dream. From Deco to Retro to Diner, it had me salivating. 

However, the fact that there was nothing really unexpected does not mean that there were no thrills.  The first was walking into the lathe room tucked behind the stage of the Blue Room.  That room is definitely no secret, TMR highlighted it in their video of the recording of the World's Fastest Record-- 

(Had to kick myself afterward that I forgot to ask for a peek inside the furnace elevator to see that incredible wallpaper. In an elevator, for crying out loud!) 

And you can see the lathe machine itself through a large glass window at the side of the stage.  But to walk into that room, to stand in it and have Blackwell describe exactly what they do there-- capturing live music as it happens, no second takes, no overdubs... I'll admit to bouncing a bit in excitement as we entered.  Because listening to live records cut there really is the next best thing to being at the show. You can watch YouTube video footage of all sorts of concerts, professionally or amateurly filmed, but as close as that seems, it's still two-dimensional.  The acoustics of the Third Man Blue Room are so crisply pristine and the recordings so immediate, that you can close your eyes while listening and really, truly get a feel for what it was like to be there.  It's a room in which technology and magic come together. 

The next big thrill came when Ben led us into the master tape vault (after leaving us waiting momentarily in the Blue Room while he unlocked the door  with its state-of-the-art keypad lock).  You can see this room in Dan Rather's interview with Jack, at 24 minutes in--


Let me say it again: The master tape vault. To actually be in that tiny room, to scan the jampacked shelves and read the names of much-loved records and performances on the spines of the boxes, to know that these were the original tapes from which all of every fan's records were created and could be re-created if necessary, all housed in Jack's "house" under his control... it was the mother lode, pure and simple, and my eyes were probably as big as dinner plates the whole time I was in there. And that's what meant so much to me about this tour-- It wasn't that any secrets might be revealed, it was the thrill of proximity, of being close to the literal sources of the music. Where Graceland focused on the man behind the music, this tour of Third Man focused on the music and how it's created and made available to us all.

Throughout the tour, it was nifty peeking into people's offices and meeting members of the staff. But, really, the biggest treat of all was hearing the stories told by Ben. Those are what made the tour 
unique and special.  In hindsight, there are so many things I would've liked to ask about if I'd remembered while I was there, but we could have ended up there all day, and having him answer questions might've meant he wouldn't have talked about other things (like the story behind the exceedingly rare White Stripes/Virgin Airlines poster on his office wall, which I found especially funny seeing as how my antiquated cell phone is a Virgin phone). And like every other Third Man experience I've had, the people I was fortunate to share it with added a camaraderie that warmed up that very cold day, especially after the tour was through and we huddled around the TMR Record Booth to record an appropriate tune for our missing benefactor.

But of course, tucked into a corner of the sitting area in the midst of the main building, between the store-front and the Blue Room, was one door that we were not allowed behind-- the door to Jack's office. Ben didn't even point it out to us as he ushered us past it on the way to his own office, or when we came back out and stood chatting for a bit longer before the tour came to an end
.  But it was there, with "JOHN A. WHITE III, D.D.S., FAMILY DENTISTRY" emblazoned on dark glass. I can't help but think of it now as being like Elvis' bedroom, kept private and inviolate from the prying public.  

Though, thanks to J.D. Wilkes of the Dirt Daubers, I'll always envision Jack's mysterious room as looking something like this---

Full image borrowed from here.

January 25, 2016

A White weekend: Six year anniversary

I have an anniversary coming up in two weeks, but circumstance caused me to celebrate early. Six years ago, I found myself stuck at home during a historic blizzard and spent the hours indoors developing a musical infatuation.  This weekend, the mid-Atlantic was hit by another blizzard of record-breaking proportion and I've been stuck at home for four days so far. I've spent these hours re-exploring that old infatuation and what it's come to mean to me.  

Anyone who's familiar with this blog surely knows that I'm talking about the music of Jack White.  I wrote about that weekend six years ago and he's been a predominant subject here ever since. On the surface it looks like an obsession but, really, it's grown into something else. Sure, I'm still infatuated with Jack. He's an endlessly fascinating personality and his music moves me in a way no other musician's ever has. But in following his work, I've begun to look at a bigger picture surrounding him and his music. He and the company he created, Third Man Records, have become symbols for me of a way to look at the world, primarily art and music, but also culture and society. 

For a while now, I've been wearing a silver ring on my lefthand ring finger, a set of three bands that look like bones. I've never told anyone why, but this anniversary seems like an apropos time to talk about it. The ring is a symbol for me, just like a wedding band is a symbol for anyone who's married. As in the film Elizabeth, when Cate Blanchett's Queen Elizabeth proclaims to Lord Burley, "I am married. To England.", I also feel married to something rather than someone, to an ideal rather than to a person. (Though I am actually kind of married to Jack, seeing as how I was at the San Francisco show in 2014 during which he decided to marry every woman in the audience in the middle of the song Blunderbuss. But it was the night after he'd sprained his ankle on stage and he was probably high on Vicodin and for all I know he had it annulled two days later without bothering to tell the couple thousand of us.)  That ideal I feel wed to may walk around wearing the form of Jack White, but I see so much more now when I look at him.  I've read and been told enough about him, and observed a bit myself, to know the man is way too human to ever qualify for sainthood or keep his balance on any pedestal. But I also see him continually striving to grow, and to make the world a better place in his own way, on his own and with the help of the people he's brought into his organization. Whether it's his New Year's Day advice in the Vault chat room, his inquisitiveness about history and art and science that he shares with his fans through all of the projects he's involved in and things he mentions in interviews, his constant urging to remember the romance and ingenuity of the past while admiring the innovation of the future, the efforts by Third Man Books partners Ben Swank and Chet Weise to spread culture and beauty through poetry, or the many charity drives organized (there are four links in that string of words, click on 'em all) by Third Man Records, that striving is what inspires me.  It's the one thing we can all do, regardless of our talent or ability or circumstance, we can always try to grow and be better-- Better at art, better at whatever it is we do, better human beings with a wider field of vision and curiosity and awareness.

Thank you to the unknown person on Tumblr who captured and posted this.

Bob Dylan said in Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie--

...You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

He wasn't talking about Woody in those last lines, or in any of the lines of that poem. He was talking about what Woody represented to him.  I'm no poet like Dylan, but I understand exactly what he meant about Woody because it's very much the way I've come to feel about Jack.  When someone creates something that moves us, or begins an organization or movement that inspires us, what that person represents can become something that's both incorporated within them and totally separate from them.  Look at Martin Luther King Jr or Abraham Lincoln. On a much smaller scale, look at Woody Guthrie and, more and more, look at Jack White.   

Of course, running underneath and through it all is the music.  And there's so very much of that to celebrate, not just this weekend but every single day...


January 17, 2016

Random babblings: Sunsets, snow, and bluebirds

Over a pot of Smoky Russian Caravan, I read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' description of a Florida sunset:

The sun itself was trivial. It sank humble into a modest bed of subdued gold. But in the north, the east, the south, cloud piled on cloud, arrogant with color, luminous with lemon yellow, with saffron and with rose. Three bands of opal blue lifted suddenly from the sun. The west took over its own. The unseemly magnificence of north and east and south faded. The sun at the horizon came into its full glory and the west was copper, then blood-red blazing into an orgy of salmon and red and brass and a soft blush-yellow the color of ripe guavas. Northeast and south faded instantly to gray, timid at having usurped the flame of the sunset. Then suddenly the west dimmed, as though a bonfire charred and died. The was only a bar of  copper. All the sky, to every point of the compass, became a soft blue and the clouds were white powder, so that in the end it was tenderness that triumphed.

Then, later, in the middle of a deer trail through the trees alongside an old field, I found the spot where something devoured the bluebird of happiness, leaving behind nothing but a litter of electric cobalt feathers.

I came out of the woods and into the first snowfall of the winter, a late January attempt at appropriate weather in a peculiarly warm season.  First one flake, then two, so sparse that you'd wonder if you actually saw them until, yep, there's enough of a multitude to properly be called snow.  Wandered through it up past two of the farms on the Three Farms trail, and as I was coming back the sun bullied its way briefly through the grey. In about the same amount of time it'd take to devour a bluebird, the snow had dissipated to crystalized rain. So much for winter.

January 2, 2016

Christmas road-trip, Md to Fla 2015: Coming back

Started the drive home with the Danger episode of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio, then set the flashdrive back to shuffle. Ended up with a great assortment of tunes along the way, so this road-trip tale is gonna be as much music as babbling...

And of course I found the historic Ocala cemetery when passing through to get from route 75 to 301. Of course I did. That’s what I do, I find cemeteries. Driving along, I glance down a side street and, boom, I see headstones a couple blocks away. This was an interesting one, too, decrepit and falling apart, but relatively well groomed. Wandered around it accompanied by songs blasting from an oldies radio station playing all the way across a field on the other side the road at what looked like a lumberyard. Since I’d not brought my camera on this trip, I had to take photos with my tablet, first time I’ve attempted that. The shots came out tolerably well, despite being barely able to see what I was shooting because of glare on the screen. Made them somewhat serendipitous.  Though I always feel that cemetery photos should be black and white, so after some internal debate I ended up editing them before uploading.

A little ways beyond the sprawling horse farms north of Ocala, I passed both The Orange Shop and a turnoff to the site of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. Decided a few miles further on that those were stops I had to make, so I whipped a quick'n'vicious U-turn and headed back to check out both. 

What better souvenir of Florida than fresh-squeezed-on-site orange juice? And The Orange Shop itself looked to have been around way back when Hank Williams recorded what may've been his only political song-- 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ homestead was definitely worth the prolonged stop. You have to squint a bit to block out the highway you’ve just turned off of, and the two-lane blacktop leading back to the park, and the park and boat ramp next to the homestead, in order to get a feel for the wilderness Rawlings moved to in 1928. Just inside the old gate at the entrance is a sign that helps. It reads “It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. One is now inside the orange grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood. Here is home.” And down the path is exactly what she describes, as you come around a slight curve into an opening that was once her orange grove. There are only a few more than a dozen trees now, but enough to give a feeling of what it was like, what with the old barn and big glossy chickens strutting around and roosting in the low branches of the orange trees. And Rawlings’ house beyond, maintained by staffers in period clothing. It wasn’t open this day, but I was able to walk around and peek in the windows, and wander the short trail through what’s left of the wilderness. I wondered as I walked what she meant by “here is home”. Literally, her home? Or a spiritual home that she felt all who entered the place would arrive at? The house appeared cozy enough, but the woods… not so much. They’re compelling, though, and certainly mysterious. The alien-ness of hanging mosses, strangling figs, palms that grow like ferns, and cypress knees creates a definite enchantment. But there’s also something forbidding in their mystery, in the way sandy soil gives way to springy marshiness, and then to swamp. What threats are hidden behind the fans of palm and in those clumps of Spanish moss? In my childhood, I saw the film of Rawlings’ book The Yearling, which makes the place seem innocent enough, despite the difficulty of life there. But I also saw Frogs and had nightmares about Spanish moss, so there you go. 

As I was coming back through the grove from the trail through the woods, the gentleman working there invited me to pick a few oranges to take with me. Take my word for it, the taste of historically significant oranges has a noticeable edge over anything you'll get in the grocery store. 

Was a bit jarring to have this come up immediately when I turned the key in the ignition, but the two that followed brought me back to a more appropriate mood.

The rest of the way up 301 to route 10 to the Jacksonville beltway and then onto 95 was swift despite construction squashing three lanes worth of traffic into two. The shuffling stereo got caught in a blue mood… 

But somewhere in the midst of Georgia, it brought up an appropriate tune (despite the fact that 95 runs by Savannah rather than Atlanta)- 

And then, as twilight ended, up came Blind Willie Johnson and some gospel… 

As I passed the exit for Effingham (which made me chuckle because I once passed another Effingham in another state and the same lame joke crossed my mind then), it was back to some roadtrip-appropriate hard stuff… 

Got off at an exit with three motels only to find that none of them had any available rooms. Decided to cross over the highway to see if there were more options on the other side, but what I thought was a road to somewhere suddenly turned into an exit that dumped me back onto 95 heading southbound, which was not what I wanted. When you’re hauling ass along a dark highway trying to get to the next exit to get back in the right direction, you could do a lot worse than My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult… 

That next exit back was for a town called Coosawhatchie. Instead of looping across the overpass to get back on the highway going north, I decided I had to see what Coosawhatchie looked like, even in the dark, so I headed in the direction the sign pointed. Either it wasn’t much of a town or I missed a turnoff to it, but I suddenly realized the dark road I was heading along was running parallel to the highway going north. Sure enough, it came back up to the previous exit where I’d had no luck getting a room. So I got back on 95 going in the right direction and high-tailed it some more to an exit with more hotel options, where it took three stops to finally get one of apparently the last five rooms around.

A room that, even after turning on the air conditioner, had a decidedly muggy, clammy feel to it. Floor, sheets, pillows, even my clothes the next morning felt ever so slightly damp. Plus, no wi-fi. Tossed all night, and did not sleep late the next morning. Got out of damp Dodge as quick as I could, with the Captain and Seu Jorge setting the tone for the morning. 

Stopped two exits down for breakfast at the Olde House CafĂ©, because “Country cookin’ makes you good lookin’”. We’ll see. 

Made serious time through the rest of S.C. and into N.C. thanks to another woman driving a red car. Can’t recall who initially caught up with whom, but we leap-frogged a few times, I ended up following her for a while, then got in front of her and maintained the lead for a long time. Then we got caught behind a slow pickup truck. When I was finally able to whip around and get ahead of him, I looked back and saw her roll down her window and throw a gesture of some sort at him as she passed. After that, it wasn’t so much fun having her follow me, so I put a little more pressure on the gas pedal and took it up to a speed she wasn’t as comfortable at. Though every now and again, when I’d get caught behind slower cars, I’d look back and see a red car coming around the side of the cars way back behind, as if she were trying to catch up. But once I was in the clear again, I’d step down and lose sight of her again. And then suddenly I didn’t see her no mo’.  Which was a bit of a relief, but also left me feeling a little bit lonely. Just a very little bit, though.

Along the way, just shy of Florence, I noticed that all the trees that weren’t pine were no longer covered with either Spanish moss or leaves. Though still down south, that made me suddenly feel like I was already back up north. 

Made a stop in Smithfield, NC to visit the Ava Gardner Museum. Don't  have much profound to say about her other than that what I learned at the museum put her right up there with Elizabeth Taylor in the list of women I admire.  Stunningly gorgeous, yet apparently a strong, down-to-earth broad through and through. Definitely need to see more of her films.

The skies began pouring down a monsoon rain as I pulled onto the highway from Smithfield. Obligingly, the stereo shuffled up an appropriate tune for what was ahead, again from Hank.

Because the rain just would not let up.  Other cars on the road became just pairs of barely visible red lights, until I came right up on them and got a glimpse of a vaguely car-shaped mass ahead or next to me.  I passed so many lakes alongside the highway that would have been fields on any other day, to the point that I was less concerned about having an accident with another car and more about coming upon a flood across the road. Especially when the stereo began shuffling up a string of damned fine driving tunes and I just could not speed up...

And this one, highly apropos to Ava Gardner's love of bullfighting and bullfighters...

Finally stopped for dinner somewhere in Virginia and came across this great quote in the most recent music issue of Oxford American, about why so much great music is made in Georgia: "Because of the humidity that surrounds us.  You lose your stinking mind and have to go crazy to remain sane!  Things are so backwards here. Frontwords is backwards. You know? One and one is two, but what's one?  Southern people are fucking crazy. And if you're not crazy, you're driven crazy. And if you don't have that crazy in you, you're not any good.

It ain't the humidity, it's all that scratchy pine and swampy water, I know it is.

And the second truism of the road is... a rainy highway is a rainy highway is a rainy highway.  Fortunately, the car stereo was yet again in tune with the drive and shuffled up a couple different versions of this one over the last hundred or so miles home...

Because if you're not in tune with your car, you just can't have a good road trip.

Christmas road-trip, Md to Fla 2015: Going

Drove from Maryland to Florida for a belated Christmas this year. Left Christmas eve morning, well, actually more like noon, and hit the dreaded I-95 Corridor through northern VA.  I've driven 95 from Connecticut to the Carolinas (before this trip) and the stretch through Virginia is consistently the absolute worst in terms of traffic slowdowns for no discernible reason.  Fortunately, there was a flashdrive full of music plugged into the car dash and it more than once set both the mood and the pace of the trip, both going and coming back.  Though I learned something important on this drive-- Setting music on shuffle makes time go more slowly than listening to something with a discrete time-frame, like a podcast or album. 

Hit the border of VA and SC a little after 8pm with the intention of stopping at that famous (notorious?) spot that is the entrance to SC. But South of the Border just does not live up to its kitschy potential. Very sad. Obviously there was a time when it was a fun spot, but those days seem to be over. I thought of staying at Pedro's motor inn just for the fun of it, but lost the taste for it after taking a quick spin down the road beyond and passing a gentleman's club and "Asian spa", where I would swear a drug deal was taking place as I pulled a u-turn in the lot. Went back and wandered the deserted aisles of Pedro's gift shop looking for a fun memento or silly gift for a co-worker, even just a bumper sticker or post card, but came up empty-handed. Just a lot of nothing clever there.

Woke up Christmas morning a little farther south than South of the Border and got back on the highway. Spent half of Jack White's album Blunderbuss tucked into a line of four cars doing a consistent 90-100mph. No one was being competitive, there was no tailgating, no passing. Just smoothly pacing each other at high speed. It was great. Then in the middle of Trash Tongue Talker we came up behind a clump of slower cars that couldn’t be easily passed and it all fell apart. 


When we finally got by, the two in front got slow, the guy from New York who’d been bringing up the rear got aggressive and that was it. All good things must come to an end. A few songs later, after one had gotten off at an exit and I’d passed the two who’d been leading, I put on the brakes myself to let New York get in front of me, and then watched him proceed to tailgate and pass cars up ahead, to the point of using an on-ramp to pass a truck on the right. 

On my own again and with 300mph Torrential Outpour Blues set on repeat, I started taking a closer look at the scenery, sizing it up and drawing conclusions about it. I think I wrote once years ago about driving through the desert of Utah and feeling that the landscape there, so wide open and lacking in coverage or shade, so much hot sun relentlessly pounding down on your head, could drive a person mad. But I got the same feeling looking at the landscape passing alongside the road in S.C. Instead of wide open, it’s dense with thick, seemingly impermeable stands of tall, dark pines and scrubby undergrowth, here and there immersed in stands of swampy water. Having to make your way through that back in the day before there were highways or even many roads would be a tricky thing for the sane, though a convenient thing for the insane or merely surreptitious looking for places to hide. And if you weren’t mad already, I could easily imagine it making you mad, all rough bark and sharp needles scratching at your brain. So easy to picture those convoluted woods filled with moonshine stills and guys like Ernest T. Bass

 Hopped off the highway for a moment for a break and bought a pack of Raisinets and a black-and-white, Harlequin-painted resin skull at the truck stop. Made sure to say “Merry Christmas” to the woman at the cash register as I paid for it. It was very tempting to follow the narrow road down through the pines on the other side of the overpass, but instead I hopped back on the highway and took off to the tune of Bear Cat. 


Had to chuckle a bit at the GA border over the fluttering U.S. and S.C. state flags, landscaped palm trees, and graciously worded signage (“Thank you for visiting South Carolina"). What is it about S.C.’s relationship with Georgia that made them put this up, in contrast to the sketchy neon kitsch of South of the Border up north by N.C.? 

 95 through Georgia spread immediately from S.C.'s 4 lanes split by a swampy pine divider into 6 wide open lanes with a Jersey wall divider. It also immediately became quite dull, aside from frequently having to pass folks with their brains stuck on cruise-control in the left and middle lanes. The monotony was broken here and there by marshy rivers like the Jerico and Cat Creek, which reminded me of Jug Bay and Blackwater back home in eastern MD. 

Perfect road-trip song, huh? Though I may live a predominantly static lifestyle, afraid to let go of the stability of a steady, well-paying-though-usually-unstimulating job, trips like this and the rest of the travelling I’ve done the last few years are necessary to keep me sane. Certain family members might consider some of the travelling I’ve done to be irresponsible and selfish, but my feeling is that I have to do it now while I can. I couldn’t afford to do it when I was younger, and in a handful of years I may have to take on the sort of responsibility for others that I’ve always shied away from. I don’t know what to expect, but the possibility of it is what drives me now to drive and fly and follow my addictions to road and music. Now is when I can do it and I have to take advantage of that. 

 After all the billboards along the highway had left visions of peach salsa and peach cider and peach ice cream and peach bread dancing in my head, I was very disappointed that Peach World was closed for Christmas Day. 

Spent several miles debating who recorded the better version of Solid Sender- Chico Leverette or John Lee Hooker.

Totally different songs, not variations of the same. Both have strong selling points, but I'm inclined to lean towards John Lee. 


Crossed over into Florida to the tune of Son House’s Death Letter. I don’t have much to say about Florida. It’s not my favorite state. The natural flora is exotic and mysterious and sometimes beautiful, but the human development (I almost said “encroachment”) seems mostly haphazard and ill-conceived, and frequently shabby. I’ve seen some interesting and even wonderful things in Florida (culture in Sarasota, the Edison-Ford Winter Estates, incredible cloud formations), but overall the state just leaves me on edge. It’s a hard place for me to relax in. Though I’ve always experienced it through the prism of family or work, so maybe this trip, driving through so much of it on my own, will let me form a different connection with it. 

Connections might be tough to form, though, as there seem to be damned few places to stop.  Went all the way from Jacksonville to Ocala via routes 10 and 301 with nary a rest area or hotel/restaurant haven, and thought I was going to be out of luck dinner-wise in Ocala. Cruising the outskirts of town, the Family Dollar store was open, but Burger King was not. That says something. Thank goodness for Aunt Fannie’s Restaurant, which, as the servers kept answering the phone near me at the counter, was “open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year!” The counter was so high that I felt like a little kid sitting there, especially as the stool was also so high that my toes didn’t touch the floor and the glass they served my sweet tea in was so big it took two hands to grab and lift it to my mouth. A bit Alice In Wonderland-ish, but the ham steak was damned good. Three hours to go, headed back to the highway accompanied by Hank Williams’ 6 More Miles To Go.

Looked over my left shoulder a while later to see the Full Cold Moon rising.  Listened to Son House singing Pearline and tried to imagine him at 60-something in a recording studio with “Blind Owl” Alan Wilson helping him to remember his old songs. Was Pearline one he originally did way back when, or was it made up during those studio sessions? I should look that up some day, see if I can find out. It’s my favorite of his songs, with lyrics that consist of pretty much nothing but “Pearline, what’s the matter with you?” and “Pearline, I love you”. His slide guitar sums up everything else about their relationship in between those two sentiments. 

One of the truisms of the road—No matter what state you’re in, a dark highway is a dark highway is a dark highway. 

December 8, 2015

Jug bands and Joe Bussard

Image borrowed from Dust & Grooves
Look at that wall. That's history. American history, musical history. That is a wall of thousands and thousands of 78rpm records. All pressed from the 1920s through the 50s, most of which consist of only 1 or 2 or a small handful currently in existence. Think about that: 1 or 2 records left in existence-- not 1 or 2 songs that were recorded, but 1 or 2 actual, physical records out of what was originally pressed however many years ago-- that represent musicians many of us have never even heard of.  Musicians who were famous in their time and recorded many songs of which many thousands of of copies were pressed, but who've been forgotten over the decades; musicians who had a few thousand records pressed and went to their graves relatively unknown; musicians who cut one record and then disappeared leaving behind only a few hundred pressings of merely one or two songs. It's staggering to think about, that there's so much music that's been pressed to shellac and vinyl that would be gone if it weren't for people like the man in that photo. That man is Joe Bussard and that wall is in his basement. This intro might sound hyperbolic, but I spent a morning with Joe a week or so ago and came away overwhelmed. 

Joe's well known in a small, somewhat esoteric circle of music historians, record collectors, lovers of old-time music. The Dust and Grooves article linked below the photo above is where I first heard of him.  I was tickled by the fact that he lived so nearby, but figured I'd never meet him.  I learned more about him and that incredible room in his basement when I read Amanda Petrusich's Do Not Sell At Any Price, an essential read for anyone interested in the history of American music, but still figured I'd never run into him on the streets of downtown Frederick. And then one of my favorite local record shops posted on Facebook that they were going to host a release party for The Year of Jubilo, a new cd compilation of Civil War songs culled by Joe from his collection. Hot damn, I could meet the man. When I did, he got a kick out of the way I bopped around to the live music provided by The Capitol Hillbillies and said "You should come up sometime and I'll play you some records!"  You have no idea how excited that invitation left me. A week or two later, after an e-mail exchange and a phone call, I was on my way to Joe's house on a wet, chilly Saturday morning.

I tried to take notes of the records he played for me during the three and a half hours I was there, but I didn't want to talk while the music was playing and when each song ended, he was either flipping the record in a flash or slipping it in its sleeve and jumping up to comb the shelves for another one faster than I could write.  I ended up with a piece of paper full of scribbles down the middle and around the edges and feel like I didn't write down even half of what I heard.  Joe started with 20s jazz, then into jug band, harmonica music, country blues, then he sat down on his couch and played me a bit of screwdriver slide guitar (beautifully, too), and then went back to the records with a dive into 40s and 50s country. And then I had to get on the road, but not before he played a couple of wax cylinder records and some Edison diamond discs on a windup player.  

My education in this sort of music began a couple of years ago with the two volume set, The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, from Revenant Records and Third Man Records. They're a fantastic start to studying American music history, with 1,600 songs and a couple of books thick with information, like four years of high school devoted entirely to the vast catalogue of music released by Paramount. Stepping into Joe's basement and having him play dj for you is like graduating and going off to college.  There are so many directions to go in, so many connections to make, and he's a challenging professor to keep up with. On this first morning, the first lesson I came away with had to do with jug bands.

If you're like me, the idea of a jug band most likely initially summons up an image of Appalachia and hillbilly music. And yet, like so much of American music, jug music originated with African-American musicians in urban environments. Which explains the surprising diversity of jug music, as African-American players of that era were apparently rarely as conscious of genre as the historians who've come along since to classify them.  They just played, using whatever instruments were at hand or creating new ones from whatever was lying around.  As a result, the jug became a bridge between styles, providing a bass line for pretty much any combination of instruments you could think of.  Pair it up with a clarinet and piano, and you've got sophisticated, swinging jazz.  With a guitar and maybe a harmonica, you could create deeply mournful blues.  Throw in a fiddle and there's the Appalachian tone that I think most people would associate with it.  And it can be incredibly subtle-- On at least one song, I didn't even realize what I was listening to was a jug rather than a stand-up bass until I heard the musician's breath.

Some highlights of jug music and a few other things Joe played for me that I was able to find on YouTube--

Lordie, that harmonica... And to close it out, a tune used in a documentary about Joe--

And, holy heck, look at the lone speaker there in the corner that Joe plays his music through. Filled that room like nothing I've heard before.
Image borrowed from this person's tale of his own Joe experience

Needless to say, there will be as many more lessons as Joe's willing to give me. Soon as I can get a free weekend to head back down into that basement.