I Don’t Know How Far I’m Going to Have to Go to See My Own Self or to Hear My Own Voice

When Mama would hide the books I’d walk back to the front porch, afraid to run away, but I’d use the porch for my stage, and the grass, flowers, and pickets along our fence would be my crowd of people; and I made up my first song right there:

 

Listen to the music,

Music, music;

Listen to the music,

Music band. - “Empty Snuff Cans” from “Bound for Glory”

 

It’s hard to leave the Guthrie Center after that; I felt like staying on that cold stage for … I don’t know. As long as necessary to cling to the feeling. But I also know the importance of leaving before the feeling’s gone. I left, going back to downtown Great Barrington, a numbness setting in after the adrenaline of knowing subsided.

I stopped at Yellow House Books, wandering through the stacks and shelves of used texts in a Victorian clapboard, leaving with a tomb from a former life – a giant vintage cookbook compilation with many of the books I used in a column I used to write, an artifact to connect me back to who I am, was, and will be. A few hours nursing Americanos in a coffee house helped, too, but left me wanting to head back to Woodstock early, skipping the Thursday night hootenanny at the Guthrie Center, despite that being the reason I came to town in the first place.

If hanging out in the center could emotionally exhaust me so much, there’s no way I could drive back after being in that building with voices and guitars. Over pizza and a beer, I found a cheap room for the night. I had a feeling I’d do this. Regardless, I hadn’t packed a single thing for the night. Easy enough to buy a toothbrush, toothpaste, some new socks for tomorrow, and be done with it. It’s not like I’m in a dire, desperate situation that requires traveling by freight train or living in a tent with a Hooverville. A $35 motel room won’t kill me. Neither will a lack of underpants tomorrow.
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My Dad’ll Bring Your Daddy Back Home Again

I felt a feeling of some kind come over me like the chilly winds coming over the hot hill. I turned nervous and scared and almost sick inside. I fell down into Papa’s lap, hugging him around the neck so tight his whiskers rubbed my face nearly raw. I could feel his heart beating fast and I knew he was afraid.

 

“Le’s run!”

 

“You know, I’m not ever going to run any more, Woody. Not from people. Not from my own self. Not from a cyclone.”

 

“Not even from a lightnin’ rod?”

 

“You mean a bolt of lightning? No. Not even from a streak of lightning!”

 

“Thunner? Tater wagon?”

 

“Not from thunder. Not from my own fear.”

 

“Skeerd?”

 

“Yes. I’m scared. I’m shaking right this minute.” – “Mister Cyclome” from “Bound for Glory”

 

Thursday, January 10

My writing week in Woodstock only included one day trip plan – a Thursday visit to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, 90 minutes away, driving through the valley that connects the Catskills to the Berkshires, and home to the Guthrie Center. It’s too close to not go, but waking up to this view from my kitchen on that first full day didn’t make leaving the cottage an easy move.

From the kitchen door, through the sleeping porch, and there’s the mountains behind Ashokan Reservoir, where silence greets me as I put the water on to boil for my coffee. Why would I ever want to go?

But I’m going. There’s a hootenanny in Alice’s house tonight.

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There Once Was a Union Maid Who Never Was Afraid

“Then more settlers trickled West, they said in search of elbow room on the ground, room to farm the rich topsoil; but, hushed and quiet, they dug into the private heart of the earth to find the lead, the soft coal, the good zinc. While the town of people only seventeen miles east of us danced on their roped-off streets and held solid weeks of loud celebrating called the King Koal Karnival, only the early roadrunners, the smart oil men, knew that in a year or two King Koal would die and his body would be burned to ashes and his long twisting grave would be left dank and dark and empty under the ground – that a new King would be dancing into the sky, gushing and spraying the entire country around with the slick black blood of the industry’s veins, the oil – King Oil – a hundred times more powerful and wild and rich and fiery than King Timber, King Steel, King Cotton, or even King Koal. – “Empty Snuff Cans” from “Bound for Glory”

(Since this week marks the 100th anniversary of Mother Jones being hauled to jail at age 86 for protesting mining conditions in West Virginia, seems like a good time to finally write about visiting her grave in Mt. Olive, Illinois, last July.)

July 3, 2012 On the eve of our nation’s birthday, I did the most American thing I could find: I drove by myself through rural Illinois to Davenport, Iowa, in search of Woody Guthrie at a Wilco concert with my friends Sam, Brianne, and Paul. I’ve made lots of drives north on I-55 through the sprawl of crops and wind farms. It’s necessary to get to Chicago, and to my in-laws in Michigan, friends in Peoria. And this time, a town on the Illinois-Iowa border. In nearly 15 years of making these drives, I’ve never followed the signs near Mt. Olive, indicating the Mother Jones memorial. Mostly because I had no idea what it meant or who she was beyond the brief biographies in my feminism books – badass old lady who gave what-for to people who needed it. Which, really, should be enough for me. Hell, Congress called her “the grandmother of all agitators,” so I have no excuse for slacking on my Mother Jones learning.

By this point in the Guthrie project, I knew enough to realize that Mother Jones was the original union maid, fighting for the same workers rights years before Woody was even born. Without Mother Jones, there might not have been a Woody Guthrie. And there would have been fewer miners and workers; her fight for safer, humane working conditions saved more lives than we can begin to fathom.  Continue reading

I Stand Alone in My Back Door and That’s Something I Never Did Before.

“She’d come to the office where Papa was, and she’d set down and turn through the magazines and papers, looking at all of the pictures. She liked to look at pictures of the mountains. Sometimes she’d look at a picture for two or three minutes. And then she’d say, “I’d like to be there.” – “Boy in Search of Something” from “Bound for Glory”

I have no idea how to be alone.

This is a relatively new development. Growing up without siblings, I never felt like I was missing anything, content to spend my time alone in my room with my books and records. The characters I met in songs and books, or concocted in my head, interested me far more than anyone I’d ever met. I was an unshy introvert – personable and friendly, but requiring my solo time, which people didn’t seem to understand.

Now, I consider myself a forced extrovert – an introvert by nature who contorted to extrovertism long enough to perfect it. It’s worked well for me. No doubt by ability to talk to anyone about damn near anything has served me well in this project, and in my life in general. But after all these months of crowds and events, coupled with having lived with my family since 1999, I’m ready for some alone time.

My friend Kate’s mother splits her time between St. Louis and a cottage in the Catskills a few miles from Woodstock, New York. When she’s in St. Louis, she lets artists and writers use her Woodstock house as a retreat. Months ago Kate brokered the details for a week-long stay for me at her mother’s. By myself. In the dead of winter.

It sounded like the most wonderful and terrible thing, being alone on a mountain for a week, finishing this project. So of course, I did it.

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The Radio Reported, We Listened With Alarm, the Wild and Windy Actions of This Great Mysterious Storm.

Men fighting against men. Color against color. Kin against kin. Race pushing against race. And all of us battling against the wind and the rain and that bright crackling lightning that booms and zooms, that bathes his eyes in the white sky, wrestles a river to a standstill, and spends the night drunk in a whorehouse. – “Soldiers in the Dust” from “Bound for Glory.”

 

I was four and a half on May 4, 1977. A rather boring day, I built a blanket and pillow fort on the couch where I watched game shows all morning. It was laundry day, with my mother going up and down the steep stairs to our concrete slab basement with heaped plastic baskets.

The biggest excitement of the day? Waiting for her to invite me to join her for a little laundry bonding. So when she told me to hurry up and get to the basement, I thought the time had finally come for me to tip-toe peer into the sudsy drum that churned my muddy duds clean again.

Instead of going to the washing machine, she hustled me to the other side of the basement, a dark, webby storage corner. We huddled under a tent of blankets while my mother cried, asking me to pray with her for my dad, who was running his rural milk delivery route, to come home safely.

In the cold dankness, hearing my mother pray for my father, her sobs, and the howl and roar above us not five minutes after Bob Barker instructed his contestants to spin the big wheel for a chance at the Showcase Showdown, was when I learned just how fast a tornado can gnash large portions of my hometown. One minute it’s laundry and Barker’s beauties. The next, we’re praying for our lives.

The tornado was just shy of an F4, with winds over 200 miles per hour. One dead, thirty injured, 150 homes destroyed. 300 damaged in an eleven-mile path. In a town with 20,000 people. Two schools were so wrecked they had to close for the last month of classes.

We drove through town with my grandmother in her yellow VW wagon, and the wailed at the destruction. Under a bright blue sky with sun reflecting the flooded puddles, the new May verdant leaves from trees upended, sharing the ground with balls of pink fluff. Fresh green and cotton candy looks like a wonderland until you realize the pink fluff is the guts of fiberglass insulation, ripped from the soul of the homes when the storm turned them inside-out.

Three years later, it happened again. Once again, we huddled in the basement, our home and family spared. And again in 1982. Twice. The week of Thanksgiving in 1990.

Six years ago a wall of wind descended on St. Louis, leaving us and a million others without power during the hottest week of July. It happened so fast that the windows on the east side of our house were sunny while the ones to the west went black. That one happened so fast there wasn’t time to sound the alarms.

Hurricane Sandy didn’t scare me, because I’ve seen death drop from the sky with no notice. I knew Sandy was likely to hit New York nearly a week before my trip.

Not that this completely prepared me.

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I Fully Aim to Get My Soul Known Again as the Maniac, the Saint, the Sinner, the Drinker, the Thinker, the Queer.

 I don’t know why I didn’t tell them I had a guitar up yonder hanging on that tree. I just reared back and soaked in every note and every word of their singing. It was so clear and honest sounding, no Hollywood put-on, no fake wiggling. It was better to me than the loud squalling and bawling you’ve got to do to make yourself heard in the old mobbed saloons. And instead of getting you all riled up mentally, morally and sexually  - no, it done something a lot better, something that’s harder to do, something you need ten times more. It cleared your head up, that’s what it done, caused you to fall back and let your draggy bones rest and your muscles go limber like a cat’s. – “The Telegram that Never Came” – from “Bound for Glory”

 

My husband knows everything I do, and he doesn’t mind.

He doesn’t mind that I’ve run around the country, chasing Woody Guthrie.

If he traveled for his work, would you tell him what a good, patient, loving, generous wife he had for letting him do his job? Probably not.

I get told that all the time. I do agree that he’s all those things, but it bothers me that men with those traits are still considered “special” when they should be considered “normal.”

He doesn’t mind that I’m fat.

Do I get pitying looks for having a spouse he’s chubbier, grayer, and sleepier than he was in 1998 when we met? No. So why should he?

He doesn’t mind that I’m a social butterfly, gregarious, and tend to fall into flirtation without even realizing it. When he does the, he’s considered charming.

He doesn’t mind that I have parts of my life that have nothing to do with him or our daughter.

How lucky am I to have such an understanding husband?

That’s not luck; that’s the way it should be. From both sides.

He doesn’t mind that I took a Saturday to indulge in the offerings of the West Village.

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Got No Fear in Life. Got No Fear in Death.

I walked along, the day just leaving out over the tops of the tall buildings, and sifting through the old scarred chimneys sticking up. Thank the good Lord, everybody, everything ain’t all afraid. Afraid in the skyscrapers, and afraid in the red tape offices, and afraid in the tick of the little machine that never explodes, stock market tickers, that scare how many to death, ticking off deaths, marriages and divorces, friends and enemies; tickers connected and plugged in like juke boxes, playing the false and corny lies that are sung in the wild canyons of Wall Street; songs wept by the families that lose, songs jingled on the silver spurs of the men that win. Here on the slummy edges, people are crammed down on the curbs, the sidewalks and the fireplugs, and cars and trucks and kids and rubber balls are bouncing through the streets. I was thinking, “This is what I call bein’ burned an’ a-livin’; I don’t know what I call that big high building back yonder that I left.” – “Crossroads” from “Bound for Glory”

 

New York City’s not nearly as intimidating the second time, especially when taking the same flight as before and staying in the same hotel, knowing how to go about getting a cab with a driver who knows how to get to said hotel. It lowers the adventure factor, but after seven months of traveling, I’m nearing my adventure quota.

It’s the last weekend in October, and this trip should be simple. Two concerts in the same location - Pace University on the Lower East Side – on two different nights. Plenty of time to travel, get lost, get found, explore, and sleep, when I’m not immersed in Justin Townes Earle and Joe Pug.

My mother wasn’t quite as convinced that I was going to be murdered to death this time in New York. I’d like to think it’s because I turned 40 a week earlier and in that time have kept myself and the person I made with my body alive and well.

No, that wasn’t it. This time, she was convinced I was going to be decimated by the hurricane slowly climbing the eastern seaboard in a grim race with the blizzard creeping east over Ohio.

“Please tell me you’re going to cancel this trip,” she sighed into the phone the day before I left.

I’m no fool, Mama,

I know the difference

Between tempting

And choosing my fate.

Of course I’m not canceling. Not even an option. I grew up in Tornado Alley. With my mother. Fleeing for cover with a few seconds notice? Second-nature. The hurricane and blizzard are days away and trackable.

Woody Guthrie arrived in New York City during one of the worst blizzards in the city’s history. He did just fine.

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Maybe We’ll Have All the Fascists Out of the Way by Then. Maybe So.

“I’m not personally in the money-lending business. It would be against the law for me to lend you money without letting the governor know.”

 

“Th’ gov’ner? Shucks, me ‘n’ th’ gov’ner’s always goin’ aroun’ with our hands in each other’s pockits. Big friends.” – from “A Fast-Running Train Whistles Down” from “Bound for Glory”

 

Among other things you can’t do in the Kennedy Center: you can’t take pictures.

I wasn’t even trying to take a picture during the show. I’d arrived at my seat, after finally meeting Andie, my contact at the Grammy Museum who helped get me into so many events for this project. So many that upon meeting, we hugged like old pals.

But even that connection didn’t spare me from getting a tap on the shoulder as I raised my phone to take a photo of the auditorium as people filed in.

“No photography in the Kennedy Center,” the usher sneered.

I hate arbitrary rules.

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But Believe it or Not, You Won’t Find it so Hot if You Ain’t Got the Do Re Mi.

Poker tables wheeling and dealing. Five or six little oilcloth tables, five or six mulers, hustlers, lead men, standing around winking and making signs in back of every table. And behind them, five or six more hard-working onlookers, laughing and watching five or six of the boys with a new paysack getting the screws and trimmings put to them. – “Boomchasers” from “Bound for Glory”

 

Deals went down at the Kennedy Center the next night.

I arrived early, grabbing a cab when several buses didn’t show up, unaware that the center runs a shuttle from the Metro station a mile away. Again, DC’s assuming I know all their rules and amenities without actually putting the information anywhere I might find it. But I’m figuring it out: show up to everything early and when people start forming a line, assume the person in the front knows what’s happening and fall in.

I hadn’t sold my extra ticket to the show. Until I had two tickets in my hand, I wasn’t going to believe I actually had an extra. But the Grammy Museum has never failed me; they had a ticket for me at the box office. I’d been in communication with Heather, the kind soul from Craigslist who sold me the first ticket, and she was trying to connect me with others who’d contacted her to buy the spare ticket.

With my two tickets, I wandered into the vast lobby, carpeted in lush red against white walls, brass accents, and skinny windows overlooking the Potomac. The look was mimicked in houses of my childhood, quickly looking dated and cheap. I’ve seen the Kennedy Center in photos and on television, and thought it looked dated. In person, it’s not. There’s the intangible line between tackiness and cutting-edge that grows into classic design. The Kennedy Center is a master of the latter.

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I Know You’d Come a Runnin’ If You Blistered Both Your Feet.

Mama got up and starting taking long steps in the direction of the house. I tore out in front of her and tried to hold her back. She was walking with a strength and a power that I had seen her use before in her bad spells, and an ordinary person’s strength wasn’t any sort of match for hers. I held out my hands to try to stop her, and she brushed me over against the fence like I was a paper doll she had played with and was now tossing into the wind. – “A Fast-Running Train Whistles Down” from “Bound for Glory”

 

I have terrible feet. They’re flat. Never developed an arch and, when I was a kid, the solution to that was orthopedic shoes that we now know prevent kids from ever developing an arch. Which is why my kid didn’t wear shoes until she was well over a year old. There are a lot of things I didn’t want to pass down to her, but the feet were right there with panic disorder and cystic ovaries. The constant dull ache where my arches should be grows when I’m on my feet a lot until I feel like I’m balancing on top of jagged rocks.

That, I can tolerate. I’m used to it and long ago accepted that I can’t wear two-dollar shoes. What still bothers me is, because the flatness changes the shape of feet and how they interact with shoes, I get a lot of blisters.

Through all my Guthrie travels, my feet remained spry, with the exception of the night I missed the Chicago sausage party. I walked all over Okemah and Brooklyn. Salinas. Through beach sand, which is the mortal enemy of flat feet. Nothing beyond a mild ache.

With this trip, I had blisters before I caught my connecting flight out of O’Hare. Even my feet had misgivings about going to Washington.

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