Sunday, December 29, 2013

Garden of Song: Inside the Coen Brothers' Folk Music Movie

            "Brady, O Brady, you know you done wrong/ Bustin' in the room while the game was goin' on/ Knockin' down the windows, breakin' down the door/ Now you're lying dead on that cold barroom floor."

            The lyric from from "Duncan and Brady" that follows offers a kind of explanation: "Been on the job too long."

            Well, we've all had those days.

            That I remember these lyrics from so long ago is a sign that, one, I did hear them long ago when memory was young, and, two, no doubt I heard the same record album over and over. Possibly one of the records I found when I looked at Dave Van Ronk's discography in anticipation of seeing the new Coen Brothers film "Inside Llewyn Davis," whose central figure, a hard-luck performer of "authentic" folk songs in the burgeoning folk music scene of Greenwich Village in 1961 is supposed to bear some relation to Van Ronk.

            Another song I remember clearly is Van Ronk's version of "The House of the Rising Sun." It's the interpretation most people remember because it helped make a name for young then-folk singer Bob Dylan when he recorded it. The Animals followed with a hit electric version of the same take on what had once been an "authentic" folksong, i.e. an enduring musical complaint by Joe Everyman or other person unknown .

            Neither of these songs appears in "Inside Llewyn Davis" -- though a spirited rendition of "House" did take place in the annual Christmas songfest at my brother's house in Smithtown, N.Y., despite the song's absolute lack of resemblance to Christmas cheer, seasonal comfort or good will to man. It's just a flat out great song.

            A number of "authentic" folk songs are performed by Oscar Isaac, the actor-singer who plays Davis, including "Hang Me, O Hang Me" and "Fare Thee Well"; and by other characters. A husband and wife act sing "Five Hundred Miles" which a lot of us heard Peter Paul & Mary (and others) sing in the early 60s. But a song performed by another character, "The Last Thing on My Mind," written by Tom Paxton in the folk music idiom, is the wave of the future.

            The "authentic" folk song defined concisely by Davis in a dark club after his affecting  performance of "Hang Me" -- “It was never new and it never gets old and it’s a folk song” -- was the meat of the genre when the folk revival began. It would be superseded by the songs written by a generation of artists who cut their teeth on this material and then took it in their own direction -- Paxton, Phil Ochs, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley, Buffy St. Marie, and lots and lots of others including the pre-eminent practitioner of this art, Dylan.

            The movie asks, in part, why the artistry of a Llewyn Davis -- impressively and movingly interpreting these "never new, never old" lamentations, ballads, celebrations and self-assertions -- is never enough. It isn't, at least for the forces who decide who are the artists and entertainers that can make money from the music.

            Trying to add to Davis's pithy definition, I come up with the notion that a folk song can best be performed acoustically by a single performer or a small group in a moving fashion before a live audience. The appeal requires some simplicity of presentation. It doesn't get better if you put an orchestra behind the solo performer; it gets worse. It's not the same if you add studio refinements. You might come up with something as good, but it's something different. Many of us liked the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn," but we know Peter Seeger's version is truer to the song's origins.

            Then there's the vague concept of "idiom," a convenient word for "sounds a certain way." The folk idiom, the blues idiom, the Celtic idiom, the jazz idiom, etc. The songwriters mentioned above wrote songs that sounded like folk. That's what I hear when the film's clean-cut young rival to Davis performs Paxton's sad break-up song, "Last Thing on My Mind." The song relies on a sensitive man's lyrics ("I could have loved you better/ Didn't mean to be unkind/ You know that was the last thing on my mind"); it sounds college-educated.

            Folk songs are more likely to be tragic, final, murderous, fated. Hard luck, social oppression, or a fatally bad decision is their theme. They live on attitude. "Hang me," Llewyn Davis's opener, is about the sad fatalism of some deed gone terribly wrong. "I don't mind the hangin,' /it's the lying so long in the cold, cold ground."

            For the same reason, perhaps, Van Ronk's "Duncan and Brady" has stayed in my mind so long. There's no real reason why somebody snaps and kills someone else over nothing; but we know it happens, and keeps happening in the world we live in. Maybe the reason really is: "Been on the job too long." Some of us have had those kinds of jobs.

            "House of the Rising Sun" still gives us an image -- old in its particulars, but lasting its applications -- of compulsion-driven lives. The House of the Rising Sun ("It's been the ruin of many a poor boy") is whatever keeps you down: drink, drugs, gambling, obsession, infidelity, violence. This evocation of unlovely truth shares a lot with another idiom, the blues.

            According to the film's producers most of its music is "from the public domain," defined as songs of uncertain origin. This is where the bulk of the material that fed the "folk revival" of the late 50s and early 60s came from. It was the moment when singers, performers like the film's Llewyn Davis -- and the actual scene's Van Ronk -- had something that many people, most of them young, but not all, seemed to need and want and respond to.

            I don't think the film tells us much of anything about why this movement happened, where it came from, or how it ended -- though a brief last minute glance from a young Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter who would "transform" rather than interpret this material, making it his own, exploiting it ruthlessly, suggests that ending.

            But I don't think the film was trying to do these things. It was trying to give us a feeling for what "it" was like "back then," at an intriguing time and place. To do that effectively you need to tell a story, and so the film offers us Llewyn Davis, who's something like the anonymous subjects of his songs, more victim than hero. That's why he can sing their songs.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Music: Still Playing Favorites

Somehow the holiday, the day of days, the seasonal mood, the generalized promise of peace and benediction for all, still means something, not matter how many years pass. Though how, at a certain age, any age beyond childhood, does one "wait" for Christmas? Anticipate? It's hard to explain, but as the years go on (and I go with them, whitening my beard with winter frosts), I rely increasingly on a stock of private music traditions.
Old stuff, with some new compositions; elegant, artistic, nostalgic. George Winston’s "December." Other Windham Hill recordings like "Winter Solstice."

I'm not talking about the festive songs here, the rousing fantasy of people stomping around raising glasses of brown ale in outbursts of universal cheer. It's hard to find a category name for these other sentimental songs – the ones that have become my songs – but whatever the feeling is I sink into it each year. It's an old friend, a late at night solitary melancholy that has a compulsion to it that you recognize as feeding an acquired taste. You didn't have to have chocolate truffles, or good wine, but now you do. It's hard to just eat one. So you keep on listening.

And then, just as I am on the point of uncovering new depths in some warm and savory, sad and gentle, recording, the song is over, or a whole disc ends, and I have to withdraw from my comfort zone sufficiently to kick the choir into action again. It takes a few bars to recognize an 'acoustic jazz' version of the first cut on familiar record. Ah, Bach. 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.' It has to be more than a little different. He didn't write for guitar. But I'm happy with the result.

Then a tense female voice tears through an acoustic torch song from the eighties. It's the sound, more than lyrics -- the sound of her voice and the sound of the instrumentation -- that tells you this is a song about unfinished business hopelessly up in the air. Then, everything suddenly clear, you remember, it's a song about being young. Maybe that's why you want to revisit it, even though it's not a warm place, with very little assurance of peace and good will toward men.

This is followed shortly by "A Different Shore" by the Irish group Nightnoise. The song has nothing to do with Christmas but it's on a disc I play this time of year, so in the end it does. It's the song that reminds me of every other Christmas. Not a "different" shore, at all; it's a recurrent one for me. But something inexplicable in the perspective over there makes me seek it out. 

            We bring back old longings when we play old music, along with old love, old feeling and old warmth. We hope, we anticipate, we dream. Our Christmas is a dream of Christmas.

Remember, something tells me, shouting in the winter wind. Or tapping on the window sill. Though someday I will fail and forget.

            I like the hymns too. I remember when my son discovered "In the Bleak Midwinter" in the hymnal of my mother's church, which we attended for years on Christmas Eve, and let out a little whoop of recognition. “I know this one,” he says.

 “Heaven can not hold him,” we sing. “Or the earth sustain/ Heaven and earth shall welcome him/ When he comes to reign.” The song is a wish-fulfillment fantasy; no 'bleak midwinter' in the Holy Land. It's another version of the dream of a human race bounded by peace and love. The illusion by which we live.

Maybe art is illusion as well. Yet George Winston’s subtle fingers still find their way into my December evenings. The song I'm thinking of now is "Walking in the Air," written by Howard Blake for the movie "The Snowman." Winston performs it on the "Forest" album.

The song goes something like this. First, a slow assembly of piano keys. Single notes, one after another. Even when they are over, and their vibrations are over, they go on hanging in the air. How does that happen? Where does that last note go on living until the next one pushes in front of it? It rings, vibrates, hangs in the air, until it too passes away and yet remains. Then a bell-like string of hammer-struck piano strings arises from somewhere (the mind?) and advances slowly to somewhere else (the heart?). Then everything comes together: hands, fingers, ears, mind, heart. They dance, they walk, they endure – somewhere.

After a certain length of time, how long can anyone expect to go on walking through linear time inside a decaying container of hurt-able flesh? Someday our feet will leave the ground. And then we will be – as angels are – as music is – walking in the air.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Baffled by Baffles: The Squirrel Who Failed to Get a Grip

            With a foot of snow covering the ground from two recent falls, the garden landscape has officially ceased giving us anything "growing" to watch, monitor, chart or debate. However, planted in the center of the berry patch we do have the bird feeder. It is not merely however a place to watch birds compete for feeder space, it's also a living laboratory for an ongoing experiment in evolution. Not for the birds, but the squirrels.
            The squirrels have to rely on the birds' assistance to get any benefit out of the feeder's
dispensary of abundant free sunflower seeds. Birds probe into the feeder's beak-holes, and some seeds fall to the ground.
            Eventually, a squirrel, we call him the "super-squirrel" decides that if he were up there where the stream of free sunflower seed flows from, he could make it flow a lot faster. Right into his mouth.
            It's just a matter of getting up there. While the squirrel's element is generally considered to be earth unlike birds, who spend a lot of time in the air, in fact squirrels do more airborne traveling than any mammals except maybe monkeys. They nest in trees and use them for above-ground superhighways to get from place to place. The time squirrels spend in trees is probably what gives them that elevated perspective.
            The super-squirrel knows he has to get up there to the place where the seeds come from. He is a keen judge of distances. Generally, he waits for the snow. The snow pushes ground level up, often a foot higher, so when he starts climbing he is a lot closer to his goal.
            Almost always, in the cases the local domestic scientists have observed from their kitchen, the squirrel begins by climbing straight up the thin metal pole that supports the feeder. How it is that squirrels have evolved the ability to climb upward on slick metal surfaces I leave to others to explain. We have seen this too often to be surprised.
            However after a few feet the squirrel encounters the black metal baffle (see photo), seen from its underside and is -- the word play is inevitable -- "baffled" as to how to proceed. The squirrel holds the pole between the claws of his back feet and reaches out to the baffle. But the baffle is loose, it's intended to be hard to climb, hard to get a grip on, and the severe acute angle the squirrel approaches from is too difficult to overcome  -- no matter how athletically gifted the squirrel is.
            He reaches too far, loses his balance, drops off into the snow.
            This does not dissuade him. He repeats the process a few times; same result. The squirrel turns his back walks away. Never mind, poke your nose in the snow for fallen seeds. Move on. This stage lasts a few seconds, then he turns about to confront his goal once again.
            This time he takes a running leap at the feeder and jumps straight up onto the baffle. But landing on the convex slope of the baffle gives the leaper no time to get a grip, because the baffle, as intended, tips under his weight and dumps the squirrel unceremoniously into the snow.
            Cheers from the kitchen.
            Up in split seconds. Move on. Nose in snow. Pretends. Don't look at it. Chase a few dumb birds away; the ground is mine.
            Squirrel turns and faces his obstacle. Makes a few more runs and leaps.
            But he's dumped unceremoniously each time. To the continued laughter of the unsuspected observers.
            The squirrel wanders off a little, makes a circle. He finds himself amid the winter-bare stalks of the raspberry bushes. Squirrel has another idea. If you cannot climb the thing itself, climb something nearby to get close enough to make your leap. He climbs straight up the bare raspberry cane but is startled when the stalk suddenly bends over beneath his weight, becomes a parabola rather than a launching pad.
            Squirrel hangs upside down from his back feet.
            Hilarity in the kitchen.
            Squirrel falls into the snow. Polite applause.
            As before it takes a fee repeat trials to confirm the result.
            Squirrel wanders in the snow beneath the feeder, pretends to search for seed. Appears slightly disconsolate. Runs off somewhere and climbs a tree.
            But he'll be back. They always are. As we know from experience the squirrel, if he is a true super squirrel is both a combination of mental and character attributes (imagination, persistence) and physical gifts. As we know also from experience the way the super-squirrel achieves his goal, and baffles the baffle, and achieves his goal of feeding directly from the plastic feeder dispensary, is to leap straight up from the ground to the very top of the baffle, seize the pole with his claws, and then climb to whatever position he wishes to remove the seed.
            The prime position,the apex of success, is to hang upside down from the top of the plastic-tube dispenser, back claws securing the hold, and feed at your leisure from a position of privileged access at the little openings in the tube meant for bird. This position effectively puts an end to all competition because no bird can get near the feeder while a squirrel is splayed across it.
            Thd squirrels who learn how to do this will succeed, survive, breed, pass their knack onto their young... and so, in turn, the race of super-squirrels advances.
            Remembers, domestic scientists. You're seeing evolution at work. From a front-row seat in the kitchen.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Night Garden: The Curious Incident of the Call in the Dark

           I have never intentionally sought out the company of owls, certainly not by marching into the dark in the company of others in an organized fashion. The prospect of spying an owl perched on a tree in the woods watching for a telltale movement below strikes me as a nearly impossible task. Nevertheless, the experts in the field, the local chapter of Mass Audubon, has organized a series of "Owl Prowls" beginning just at sundown, and I have determined to accompany them (if it stops snowing on their scheduled dates) and learn their secrets.
            The principal search technique, so I am told, is to go to some place owls have been known to frequent and listen for their calls. It surely helps to be familiar with their calls; as owls come in a number of varieties so no doubt do their calls.
            However, while I have never gone looking for owls in a goal-directed fashion, owls have crossed my path in circumstances that I continue to regard, years later, as remarkable. And yes, now that I think about it, the essential point is to listen to what you're hearing.   
            One autumn evening when we lived in Plymouth, more than a decade ago, I was upstairs looking for something in the bedroom beside a slightly open window when I began to realize I was hearing something different from the usual run of outdoors noises: a car radio, a phone ringing, a goose flying overhead announcing a pretended desire to fly south for the winter, a bicycle squeak, a child huffing into a plastic New Year's Eve horn. What I was hearing went 'ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh.'
            This repeated series of sounds continued for some while before my mind, or whatever part of the brain decides to pay attention to what we're hearing, allowed me to realize that I was hearing something both unusual and compelling  It's a sensation that comes to you when you're doing something else, something ordinarily purposive, and suddenly your mind says, 'just drop whatever it its -- and pay attention.'
            I walked downstairs and said to my wife, "Do you hear that? That has to be an owl."
            She had been hearing something too without knowing what it was. But if I thought it was an owl then --
            "Yes! Let's go find it."
            So, taking our son along (he was happy to get out of homework or whatever else we were making him do), we decided to tune in to the call of the owl hunt in our old town center neighborhood. My only idea of where to spy an owl was to look up into the treetops.
            And there it was, a mere couple hundred feet away, around the corner at the top of a tall evergreen permitted to grow on the property of a neighbor who was away most of the time. Maybe the owl thought he had found a nice quiet place to surveil the neighborhood for interesting rodent activity. I don't know how to explain his calling. Maybe he wanted company.
            It was autumn, early in the season. We lived not far from a wooded town park surrounding a couple of ponds. Someone who knew more about these things suggested to me that perhaps a young owl might be leaving home, looking for his own territory to hunt. Maybe he was calling in for further instructions.
            We heard the owl two or three more times that fall. We would suddenly realize we were hearing the call, wander outdoors, and locate the owl in one of the neighborhood's trees.
            One one occasion, when we got a particularly good look at him -- not that I had any idea how to identify him: barn owl, barred owl, great horned? -- our presence apparently caused him to fly off. We saw the tree where he flew to, so we followed again. Before we got close he took wing once more and since Saul (our son) and I were into this adventure, we took a guess where he might heading even though we had lost sight of him. We walked around the corner, went down an side street with a downhill gradient and emerged into the open space of the town green. Lots of trees line the green's perimeter, but since the center is open I figured we have good sight lines from there.
            It was night now, full dark, though downtown lights threw some light on the green.
            We looked up at the treetops, moved around a little. I looked up at the large bird-like figure perched on top of the green's tall white flagpole once or twice before I realized what I was seeing because (I'm guessing) my brain must have assumed I was looking at some sort of icon-figure. A carved eagle, perhaps, on the top of the flagpole. But there is no carved figure on top of that flagpole.
            "That's the owl, you know," I remarked to Saul, casually, "on top of the flagpole" as if we both must have figured it out already. And because I didn't want the owl to think we were any ruder than we already were by staring and talking about him.
            We gazed up and saw his yellow eyes. He appeared to be looking right down at us as well.
            He stayed put another minute or so, probably hoping that we would leave and let him go back to calling and scanning in peace. But we didn't, so eventually he lifted his wings, rose up like an angel and then shot with speed over the trees into parts unknown.
            So while I have never searched for owls, I have come when they called. Their call is wonderful. And their flight a kind of magic.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Garden of Time: Snowing into the Long Ago

The thing about snowy landscapes: The darker it gets, the older everything looks.
            We got the first real snow of the season late Saturday afternoon. This time of year there is very little to 'afternoon,' so it always feels late.
            I am supposed to be going to an 'owl walk' around sundown in a place that takes about thirty-five minutes to get there, without snow (lots of traffic lights between me and there), and as the snow keeps coming down and the city of Quincy begins to send out its plows I give myself permission to bag it. Anne helps with that decision. So now we have time to go out for a snow walk in the local neighborhood just as the light begins to fade.
            We dress warmly. Though the temperature is well below freezing, the falling snow has an icy look to it, no soft dry flakes. Within minutes I'm sorry I didn't wear my super-warm boots instead of my ordinary warm-enough snow sneakers. Never mind.
            We walk though the near streets, cross a bigger road, already pre-salted chalk white, then head into a slightly different, more upscale group of streets that also climb gently in elevation. All of the streets we regularly walk through, all of these neighborhoods that shade into one another make up a 'city' of houses. It is a city, and an old one, because all of the neighborhoods are more densely developed than the newer suburbs. The houses are closer together, the lots smaller, the houses generally of the mid-century or early 20th century styles and sizes. Some bigger Victorian era houses scatter here and there; but owners sold off the land long ago, so even these more stately manses rub elbows with their neighbors.
            On the street we take, a gentle uphill gradient, toward the neighboring town of Milton, the houses are of a similar size, not big, not small, and have had decades, a half century or more to individuate themselves. So they never really look like each other -- this is the case throughout the city -- even on those rare occasions when the architecture is the same for two or three houses in a row. They have different colors, facades, additions, modifications, rooflines, porches (enclosed or open). They all have little front yards. All have shrubs, "foundation" plantings against the house, landscaping of some sort. Many (thank goodness!) have trees on their front yard or planted by the city between the sidewalk and the street. They have the standard little spot of lawn grass; some have more, keeping it neat, scrupulously trimmed in summer, lawn tennis style. They tend to have a few flowering plants. A few have gone over, mostly on smaller lots, to the no-grass approach, substituting groundcover plants, stones, shells, or various combinations including low (sometimes humorous) statuary.
            The houses we are passing this afternoon have grass lawns, some evergreen shrubs or a low hedge line, and trees, some of them modest-sized evergreens. Evergreens all look particularly good in the first snowflake frosting of a snowfall.
            So we walk, the snow begins to accumulate, we hear snowplows in the distance, the street winds uphill just as the road curves -- the look that makes painters want to take out their brushes. The sky is gray, overcast with snow clouds, and the twilight settles in early. We are suddenly back in some timeless time, the era of the way things used to look, always look, and still look when it snows. The combination of falling snow and early dark obliterates the decades, and even takes on the centuries.
            Modernity lets go. Nothing strikingly contemporary intrudes. No cars on the road. The parked cars begin to turn white, snow powder covering hoods and roofs, become shapes rather than late-model vehicles, sinking into the landscape rather than standing out from them.
            The houses are quiet. You can't hear anybody's TV, no one's walking down the street talking on the phone as if they were alone in the universe. We are alone in the universe; only not too alone, since we are part of everything. Nothing's moving. Only us, we are the agents of perception; the eyes of the painter. The world turns into a country village, an old town, from who knows when or where. The lower shrubs and hedges begin to wear thicker snowcaps.
            It's hard (well, impossible) to capture this effect in a simple point and shoot photo. Hard to photograph the semi-dark.The graying of the light. The pointillism.
            The sugar-candy look the trimmed and rounded shrubs take on in falling snow is heightened if people have already strung their colored Christmas lights on these bushes. The lights shine out, color muffled and diffused through the new translucent snow covering. They look like gumdrops.
            The darker it gets, the older everything looks in the snow. It also looks more beautiful.