Pete Seeger 1919-2014. Photo by wfuv, Creative Commons
“The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.” – Pete Seeger, 1994
I was fortunate enough to hear Pete when he dropped by to play several informal concerts at the high school I attended during my sophomore and junior years. Not even really “concerts” – they were too informal and intimate for that. He sat on a folding chair with his banjo and sang, talked, joked and got us to sing along. It should be clear to those who read this blog that I am not the sing along type, but it was different with Pete Seeger.
He had a presence, an authenticity, a naturalness that won us over. He was instantly “one of us,” and this in an era when we said, and really believed, “Never trust anyone over 30.” We had seen betrayal. We knew what it looked like and felt like. But Pete was one of us. “We’re all in this together,” he seemed to say, “as brothers and sisters.” You wanted to sing along, be part of a moment like that.
Just “small events” that I’ve never forgotten. The memory jumped to mind when I heard that Pete has moved on from this world. Our good fortune is that he gave us so many anthems to remind us that we are still in this together.
“Cool Water,” a classic western song, was written in 1936 by Bob Nolan (1908-1980), a Canadian transplant to Arizona, who fell in love with the desert. Nolan, an actor, poet, singer, and songwriter also wrote “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” and is credited with the creation of “western music” as a distinct genre.
Bob Nolan in “The Lights of Old Santa Fe,” 1944
“Cool Water” tells of a man and his mule, lost in the desert and beset with mirages. The song has been widely covered by artists as diverse as Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Joni Mitchell, Burl Ives, Johnny Cash, The Muppets, and Fleetwood Mac.
All day I’ve faced a barren waste Without the taste of water, cool water Old Dan and I with throats burnt dry And souls that cry for water, cool, clear, water.
The song came to mind for obvious reasons last week: Gov. Brown to declare California drought emergency. Nobody here needs the newspaper to tell us we’re in trouble. A glance at the brown lawns in January, and the American River, running lower than I’ve ever seen it at this time of year will do that.
My thoughts have been filled with many songs, stories, and images of water that I will be sharing here. I was planning on writing a longer post today, but I never got past this clip of Marty Robbins’ version of “Cool Water.”
I first heard the song on my absolute favorite album as a kid, Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Even though he’s kidding around with his friends (I think it’s a clip from “Hee Haw”), if you listen, it sounds like a prayer. I think I’ll leave it at that for today.
I just came upon a high quality clip of an unbelievably young Bob Dylan at Newport in 1963, singing one of his best early songs. Watching it, I’m reminded of a line from another early Dylan song, “We never much thought we could get very old.” I guess no one ever does.
Change a few particulars and the song is as timely today as it was 50 years ago. What’s missing is the collective hope/dream/prayer of those days that music could change the world.
Maybe it can, in the sense of planting seeds. Maybe, but if so, those seeds take longer to germinate than anyone who is young can possibly imagine.
George Harrison in the Oval Office at the invitation of President Ford, 1974. Public Domain
I didn’t call the Beatles by their first names – or even clearly know their names – when they first came to America. Although the media wouldn’t let you forget Beatlemania, I was more of the Beach Boys persuasion at the time, and later got caught up in the San Francisco sound. Then, in 1968, the Beatles did something amazing to me – they went to India to study with a guru. They opened a door I had only vaguely known was there.
George was the Beatle whose life and work were forever altered by eastern religion, as was my own. He learned to play the sitar with a master, while I learned the harmonium, (a wonderfully simple instrument that allows even a novice to produce a credible melody). For a time he belonged to an organization I did, dedicated to meditation and the study of eastern philosophy.
In Vrindavan, India, 1996. Public Domain.
In early November, 2001 at the age of 58, he underwent a last ditch treatment in New York for lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. When that failed, he travelled to Los Angeles, where he died on November 29, surrounded by family and friends. Deepak Chopra wrote:
“He always would say that when I die I want to be fully conscious of God, I want to be totally at peace, and I don’t want to have any fear of death. And believe me, being close to him, I know that he died very conscious of God and in peace and not afraid of death.”
Blood line ancestors pass on their physical substance to us. Ancestors of the heart pass on their spirit, encourage us by example, and show us what a life well lived can look like. For inspiration, I still listen to Harrison’s last album, Brainwashed, released posthumously in 2002. His son, Dhani helped finish it and included this quote from the Bhagavad Gita in the liner notes:
“There never was a time when you or I did not exist. Nor will there be any future when we shall cease to be.”
Here is a very nice clip on one of my favorite George Harrison songs from the Concert for Bangladesh, 1971.
On this day, when I listen to his music, I remember a man I truly admire, who was genuine, who found his own path and followed it to the best of his ability. “You got to walk that lonesome valley by yourself,” as the old song says, but we do not do so alone. Somehow the spirits of those who went before are there to inspire us.
Long day, much of it spent outdoors in gorgeous fall weather. The evening found me multi-tasking – watching old black and white monster movies while trying to write a serious blog post.
Sometimes the mood just isn’t right for seriousormonsters. I turned on some music, one thing led to another, and I found something better to share – Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, and Derek Trucks at the 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival.
In the late sixties, Terry Talbot and his younger brother John began playing music in Chicago. A friend and local record producer suggested they do what they were best at, an amplified country rock sound, as influenced by The Byrds. The brothers formed a band, Mason Proffit, and released their first album in 1969. Terry was 21 and John, who had dropped out of school to play music, was 15.
Over the next four years, Mason Proffit played as many as 300 shows a year and released five albums. Once, while they jammed with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Earl Scruggs called John Talbot “the best banjo player I’ve ever heard.” The Eagles credited Mason Proffit with some of the inspiration for “Hotel California.”
After the band split up, Warner Brothers re-released Mason Proffit’s first two albums as a compilation, “Come and Gone,” in 1974. I was in Arizona and a pretty big fan of country music when I heard it. Nearly 40 years later, I still enjoy the sound and the eclectic mix of styles. There’s hip country music, like The Byrds. There’s mainline country, though with tongue planted firmly in cheek:
“If you wanna be an all night truckin’ man
can’t expect to have an all night wife.”
There is Christian rock, the musical direction the Talbots took after the band broke up, and there are topical songs, like “Two Hangmen,” which was banned by the FCC. The lyrics seem tame to us now – “He was guilty then of thinking, a crime much worse than all,” – but in 1974, the Nixon administration was fanatically paranoid.
If you are still reading this post, you may be wondering why I would write about a band that broke up 40 years ago and that few have ever heard of. It’s because lately, one of their best songs, “Flying Arrow,” has been playing in my head.
Several cuts on “Come and Gone” focus on the plight of Native Americans. On that level alone, the song is outstanding. “Flying Arrow” tells a heartbreaking truth that is all too apparent in towns likeFlagstaff and Gallup.
“My name is Flying Arrow And I live in Arizona Part of what was once a mighty nation
My tribe is called the Cucupa And we build our homes of cardboard A desert floor Nine by Twelve of sorrow.”
Mason Proffit lyrics are seldom one dimensional, and this song is far more subversive than the one that was banned. As it builds to its climax, “Flying Arrow” holds up a mirror that was all too familiar then and is all to familiar now, in light of the current events, right now, right here, this month, this week, in this nation.
“My name is Flying Arrow And I live in Arizona Part of what is now a dying nation
And sometimes we feel like you’re already dead.”
The kind of morale that turns football games and nations around, was in play when the song was released. We understood the song, got the poetics, the gist, but didn’t truly believe we were dying as a nation. Not then. Call it the optimism or arrogance of youth, but enough people believed and acted on those beliefs that things turned around. For a time.
What’s the temperature now, what’s the morale like? How is the optimism level? What do people believe? This song remains a living thing for me, because now, 40 years later, sometimes I truly feel that as a nation we’re already dead.
Terry Talbot still plays with “The Mason Profit Band.” You can visit their website here: www.masonproffit.com. A half dozen free downloads of recent songs are available.
John Michael Talbot sings gospel music, has formed a Catholic monastic community, and has recently published a book on the Jesus Prayer. His website is here: johnmichaeltalbot.com.
Mason Proffit’s original music, including “Come and Gone,” is available on iTunes.
“We need magic and bliss, and power and myth, and celebration and religion in our lives, and music is a good way to encapsulate a lot of it.” – Jerry Garcia.
I was carried away in a rapture. And so i am a Deadhead now…” —Joseph Campbell
Jerry Garcia, 1966, by Zooomabooma, CC By-NC-SA 2.0
With all due respect to Don McLean, the music died on August 9, 1995, the day we lost Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist and most easily recognized member of the Grateful Dead. Between 1965 and 1995, the Dead played an average of 77 shows a year. Though volumes have been written about the experience, it is difficult to put into words. Joseph Campbell was friends with several members of the band. In a 1986 symposium with Garcia, drummer Micky Hart, and several Jungian analysts, Campbell said:
“The genius of these musicians- these three guitars and two wild drummers in the back… Listen, this is powerful stuff ! And what is it ? The first thing I thought of was the Dionysian festivals, of course…This is more than music. It turns something on in here (the heart?). And what it turns on is life energy. This is Dionysus talking through these kids. Now I’ ve seen similar manifestations, but nothing as innocent as what I saw with this bunch. This was sheer innocence…This is a wonderful fervent loss of self in the larger self of a homogeneous community. This is what it is all about!”
The Dead were always a touring band, and the shows were unique events that people loved or hated – I’ve never met anyone who was indifferent. When they played Sacramento or Oakland on weekdays, half of the people in my department at work – and we’re talking electrical and software engineers – would arrive in the morning in tie-dye and take the afternoon off to attend. The other half could not have cared less.
Campbell’s assessment reveals the “innocent joy” I felt after my first few shows, captured by the lyrics of “Scarlet Begonias:”
Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand, Everybody’s playin in the Heart of Gold Band.
In reality, you don’t get that close to Dionysus without paying a price. Thirty years on the road took its toll on Garcia. In the summer of 1995, he checked himself into a rehab facility and died in his sleep of heart failure a week after his 53d birthday.
Jerry and the Dead left us a huge musical legacy, with at least one song, “Truckin,” designated as a National Treasure by the Library of Congress. Surviving members of the band continue to release the best concert tapes, and everything has just been remastered for iTunes. You can look at the collection here: Grateful Dead on iTunes.
In the end, maybe Joseph Campbell, with his eyes of innocence, saw it most clearly when he said, “It doesn’t matter what the name of the God is, or whether it’s a rock group or a clergy. It’s somehow hitting that chord of realization of the unity of God in you all, that’s a terrific thing and it just blows the rest away.”
The month of August, named after Augustus Caesar, begins with Lammas Day, the start of traditional harvest time in Britain and the end of summer in the old Celtic way of reckoning. It feels like that in the northern hemisphere, doesn’t it?
Mid-Day Rest, Harvest, by William Frederick Witherington, British, ca. 1840. Public domain
There’s something slightly ominous about August. Back in college, I watched an eastern European apocalyptic film called, The End of August at the Hotel Ozone. It was about as cheery as the name, and when you try them out, you find that none of the other months work as well in the title. On the 4th day of August, in 1914, guns belched fire and World War I began. On the other hand, like any month, there have been good and bad times in history; the second world war came to an end on August 14.
I like August. I stand outside, watching the warm light of evening, and there is both beauty and poignancy, for you can’t help but notice the days getting shorter. Here it is in a poem by Dana Gioia, “California Hills in August.” He speaks to those who find the end-of-summer hills barren:
One who would hurry over the clinging thistle, foxtail, golden poppy, knowing everything was just a weed, unable to conceive that these trees and sparse brown bushes were alive.
And hate the bright stillness of the noon without wind, without motion. the only other living thing a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended in the blinding, sunlit blue.
And yet how gentle it seems to someone raised in a landscape short of rain— the skyline of a hill broken by no more trees than one can count, the grass, the empty sky, the wish for water.
The end of summer evokes its own sort of romantic feelings too, and I think that goes along with the dying of the light. In earlier times, at the Lammas fairs, young people could enter a “trial marriage,” generally lasting 11 days. They were free to walk away if it didn’t work out. A bit more sparse than our hearts and cupids in February, but maybe more realistic.
And in that romantic spirit, I’ll end with a beautiful harvest song / love ballad by Fairport Convention, a marvelous group from across the water that is still going strong after 46 years.