organism

There is a place between sleep and wakefulness, where we recognize our thoughts, but also see things that are unfamiliar. There is a space between thinking and feeling, where shapes represent processes, an itch can appear connected to a firecracker going off, and a mental picture can place itself in both the center of our self and the center of the earth. This is the world I have lived in from a very young age. Juxtapositions of shapes.

There are psycho-physical movies that play on the screen of my nervous system. They could be described as dreams, and remembering them as remembering a dream when awake. I can look at the sky, and feel the wind blow across my face. Why is this any more real than hearing a person’s voice, and feeling shapes and colors moving across my consciousness? My chosen spiritual tradition eschews dreaming for waking up to the present moment, but how can I discriminate between the heat from the sun and the sense of movement from the activity just beneath the surface of my skin?

As I have gotten older, I can more easily compartmentalize the dream world from the waking world, but I fully realize I am doing that, and am not proud of the separation of worlds. Both sides imagine that there is a balance place where we can live and interact with both sides equally.

In 1973, the family configuration of my 7-year-old self moved into a house on Owens Street in Klamath Falls, Oregon. This is not important, except that the memory I am sharing is connected to my sleeping space in that house, and to the sidewalk and parking strip outside.

The house was a single-family home, built in the 1930s, Downstairs there was a kitchen, and a connected dining/living room, and one bedroom and a bathroom. The upstairs space included three rooms–a small family room, a small bedroom in the middle, which was my little brother’s room, and a larger bedroom that housed my train set, my record player, and my sleeping space, which was behind a small door, under the sloped roof–not quite an attic, as it was at the same level as the floor of the room. This small huddle-space where I slept was the place where this recurring dream germinated.

Time to sleep: I would crawl into the crawl-space under-the-roof, where my mattress was on the floor. I remember a heavy fabric sleeping bag, from before the days of puffy, light, slick sleeping bags. That was my bed, with the slanted ceiling, under the roof-space. A cubby-hole, as we called it in those days. I slept in a cubby-hole.

This particular memory is in the form of a recurring dream, that began before I fell asleep, and ended with me awake and disoriented. I can’t say how much time passed between these two states, or how deeply into dreaming or sleep I had gone. During the time that I was falling asleep, my consciousness was drifting between what I knew and what I only suspected. I would feel my body engulfed in the heavy sleeping bag, and my mind would wander around the world that I knew: sidewalks, grass, car rides, the radio, casserole.

My mind would stretch out. At first, it was aware of everything that was solid: rocks, hills, water, the vast landscape that I could imagine as the firmament that supported the next layer that came into my consciousness–plant and animal life.

Something inside me could feel the breathing of the plants and animals. It was too big to zero in on any one thing, just a layer on the firmament that was pulsing, and oozing, and breathing.

Next, another layer emerged–the layer that included mechanical things, and electrical things–gears and wires, machinery and circuits, all covering the planet, interconnected with the plants and animals and rocks and water.

Perceiving all of this together was literally mind-boggling–not being able to see any one thing, my rational 7-year-old mind was overwhelmed, and yet breathed along with it. I knew that I was feeling life itself going through all of its processes. As soon as I would feel the layers merge, and my sense of space dissolve, the scene would shift, and I was watching a scene that might happen on any normal day.

The sidewalk in front of our house, deeply cracked and crumbling from the cycles of freezing Winter and sweltering Summer, from the point-of-view of my eyes. I felt myself walking on the sidewalk and noticing the yellow dandelions among the grass in the parking strip. My attention rested on a single, yellow dandelion, surrounded by green. I was attracted to it, and I bent down, and plucked…

And at the moment that I plucked the dandelion, all of the multi-layered universe that I had been overwhelmed by moments before, that had been breathing, and struggling, and whirring, and grinding, and beeping…

…stopped.

Vast silence seemed to stretch out forever.

There was an understanding that the stopping of everything was related to the plucking of the dandelion. And also, it was all gone–the multi-layered universe was gone, and all that was left was just me, in my cubby-hole bed, wondering how I could possibly live life without breaking it.

An early dream

TW: scary clown, childhood terror.

I’m pretty sure everyone has a scary clown story. Here’s mine:

1968-69: My eyes opened. I was in my bed. The first things I took in were the walls. My bed was set into an alcove. The wall of the alcove was to my left, and the head and foot of the bed had their own half walls. My view widened to include more of the room. Past the foot of the bed, and slightly to the right, there was a window, about the level of the head and torso of an adult. I awoke, opened my eyes, and allowed my eyes to adjust to the light coming in the window, and slowly took in the shape that was contained within the window.

There was a human form crouched in the window, maybe squatting on the window sill–it’s not clear. As my eyes focused, I could see that the person’s face was obscured by makeup-white pancake base, big red oversized lips, bulbous red nose, eyes like horizontal slits with vertical slits slashed through them. There was some kind of collar, but I only call it a collar in retrospect, as I didn’t know what a collar was. I didn’t know what a clown was, either. I am describing an experience through adult eyes that didn’t make any sense to me as a young child, but that I can recall as clearly as I experienced it as a child.

This character was looking at me. He was a character, but he was also a person. He was looking at me, and pointing at me. He was looking at me, and pointing at me, and smiling at me, with that painted-on smile that I was not able to interpret. Was this a happy face? What was the intention behind this painted-on smile? Was I supposed to smile along? I did not feel like smiling along. I did not trust this character. I did not trust this person.

He was looking at me, and pointing at me, and smiling at me, and saying, over and over again, “You…, you…, you…, you…,” and laughing. And laughing. And laughing. “You…, you…, you…”

I felt my eyes widen, and my breath catch, and then rush in in a big rush, and an electric feeling of terror, and I screamed…
I awoke screaming. Someone came and got me, and picked me up and hugged me.

And that was it. That’s the end of the memory. I can still recall it like it happened yesterday. I have described this dream to each of my parents, and as far as I can tell, I was maybe 2 or 3 years old, judging by the description of the space. The clown form in my memory is the clown from a box of straws (you might recognize it), and I remember that box being in the house, and I remember being confused that the clown from my dream was on the box of straws.

As an adult, I can totally enjoy clowns, slapstick body-humor, the thrill of the unknown intention, and of the obscured identity. But it is an enjoyment that is a bit like enjoying the feeling of jumping into a hole in the ice of a frozen lake, having almost drowned once, and having trained oneself to get past the initial reaction of panic as one’s body is engulfed in bitingly cold water.

Why we make music

I recently worked up an arrangement of Sunny by Bobby Hebb for my uke students. I always like to do a bit of research about the songs I share with students, being that we are in a time of cultural reflection and shift. Some songs that I am initially enthusiastic about I end up shelving because of the history of the song or because of something about it that just doesn’t sit right. And sometimes, I find out some surprising information about a song that makes me want to share it even more. This was the case with Sunny.

Here’s an article about the events and feelings that led up to Bobby Hebb writing this iconic song. It’s about living through tragedy and making something uplifting out of the experience. It worked for me.

“It was dark when I started working on the song, and the sun was rising, and it was a different color, the sky was like purple. At that moment I didn’t realize how special [the song] would become. I thought that it was good, and it would help, but I did not know how much … the president had been assassinated and the very next day my brother got killed. Everybody was feeling rather negative at that time, and I think we all needed a lift.”

The stillness

Feb 14, 1976: I had done something wrong. I don’t remember what, but I had been sent to my room. It was after dinner. I was almost 10, but not quite.

Being sent to my room was not the worst thing that could happen. Sometimes, when I did something wrong, I got the belt, or the nearest piece of two-by-four. Sometimes I got a talking-to. Sometimes I had to write a penance 50 times–”I will consider my words before talking back.” But tonight, I was just sent to my room. It was after dinner, so it was just my time, as far as I was concerned.

I had a train set–a pretty nice one–with it’s own plywood platform (my dad worked at a plywood mill), and a few plastic trees, stations, and railroad workers. I developed some facility in using the connectors, and could sculpt some satisfying layouts. This night, I was just enjoying watching the train respond to the gentle pressure of my fingers on the potentiometer that controlled the speed of the train. And I was listening to the radio.

May be an image of 1 person and text that says '50 Ways To Leave Your Lover'

The radio was my church from a very early age. I had been given an incredible radio as a child. It was the size of a modern toaster oven, and had buttons like piano keys that allowed one to choose from multiple bands that one doesn’t see on most consumer radios: Long Wave, Short Wave I, Short Wave II, AM, FM, etc. You could tune in the local AM station, or you could find stations that broadcast in Morse Code, or random tones that sounded both cool and ominous.

This night, I was listening to KAGO Klamath Falls, the AM station that played American Top 40 (as I write this, I am audiating both the American Top 40 jingle and the jingle for KAGO, though it’s been 45 years since I’ve heard either one). Watching the train go around the track, and through the tunnel, and get faster and slower in response to my hand on the dial, I listened to Casey Kasem describe the top 40 hits of the time. Each song was familiar, as KAGO was a Top 40 station, and it was what was playing in the school bus, and my step-mom’s car. I remember thinking about the ranking of the songs:

  • Wow, that song Bohemian Rhapsody is so new-sounding and weird, but it’s also sad, and I like it
  • Junk Food Junkie is funny
  • Dream Weaver should be higher. It’s really cool
  • Golden Years! I love that song! Should be in the Top 5!
  • Oh! What A Night: I don’t know what it’s about, but it seems very grown up, so I think I should like it
  • I Write The Songs: I sing this to myself all the time, except when no one is around, and then I sing it at the top of my lungs! Greatest song ever!

So, as I was watching the train go around, and mentally commenting on the hits of the week, I was also formulating in my mind what I thought would be the number one song in the nation on that evening. Even before Casey was at number 15, I had decided that 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover was going to be the number one song.

I didn’t have any evidence that led to this conclusion. I just knew it. It wasn’t necessarily my favorite song that week (I think I Write The Songs was my jam at that point in time), but I just had this feeling in my shins that 50 Ways was going to be the number one song.

And then I forgot about it. I got lost in the train. I got lost in hearing ELO sing about an Evil Woman, which was so interesting, and exciting-sounding, and new, but confusing as well. What was an evil woman about? I got caught up in imagining what a Love Machine would look like. I tried to imagine what the sexy part of You Sexy Thing looked like. Remember, I was almost 10. And the train was going around and around.

And then, it happened. It was time. The number one song in the nation was: 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.

I knew it. How did I know it? I was right. How was I right?

A great stillness came over me as I realized that I had merged with the will of the nation, and the list of possibilities of how this could have happened ran out. That stillness, and the wonder of having been correct in my projections, lasted a long time.

I can still call it up, as I struggle with more current concerns–the memory that I was right, once, when I was almost 10, somehow sustains my 50-something self. That stillness…

Artist-in-residence

During a weekend trip up to San Francisco from San Diego in the mid-80s, my girlfriend and I stopped at Caffé Trieste in North Beach for cappuccinos. It was early evening, and the the place was pretty packed. We were enjoying looking at people, checking out their style choices, listening to the mix of music coming over the speakers.

My girlfriend got my attention at one point and leaned in close–”Look at that guy over there,” as she gestured over at a man seated at the large communal table. He was dressed kind of shabbily, if I remember correctly. He had big, course workman’s hands, and he was fairly kneading a crayon onto a piece of cardboard. He had a big box of crayons, and he was using them almost like clay. You could see that there were layers upon layers of color, mixing together and forming an earth-like texture. We couldn’t really tell if he was making an image, or just working with texture.

Does anyone know who this might have been? I’ve always wondered if his art or his person are a part of San Francisco culture that is known to others. A friend just made a post about the artist Jean Dubuffet and it sparked my memory. Thanks, Leticia A. Martinez!

May be an image of outdoors and text that says 'ONE WAY ESPRESSO ESPRESSO SSO ESPRE ESPRE CAFFF TRIESTE ESSO ESPR'
Caffé Trieste

Reminiscing

Winter 1978: I lived in Klamath Falls Oregon and attended 7th grade at Brixner Junior High School. I was a band geek–I remember playing The Theme from Evergreen in band, and I still get the closing bars stuck in my head a couple of times a year. I was the only boy flute player. That didn’t make me popular with the girls OR the boys. I also had gone to about 10 different schools by that time, in 4 different towns, so I didn’t have experience really knowing people very well.

May be an image of 1 person and text that says 'SKATE RENTALS'

The thing to do on Saturday nights was to get dropped off by your parents at the skating rink. We would skate, play pinball, drink Cokes, and sometimes hang out at a booth. I wasn’t any great shakes as a skater–I could shoot the duck pretty well, but I could never skate backwards. I would watch as the couples would do the slow skate together, lights dimmed, facing each other with hands on each other’s hips, sometimes the guy skating backwards and sometimes the girl. I wanted to be one of those couples SO BAD, but I could never muster the courage to ask a girl to skate.

One time, I was playing the Tommy pinball machine when the lights went down. I’m pretty sure the song was Reminiscing by The Little River Band, one of my favorites. Just then, H____ D_____ came up behind me and asked if I wanted to skate with her. My heart leapt out of my chest. “Sure,” I said, trying not to sound too excited and trying to keep my hand from shaking. We just skated around holding hands, both facing forward – she in her denim-colored saddleback Dittos and me in my white bell bottoms. We didn’t talk or look at each other. I couldn’t think of anything to say that I didn’t think would make me sound stupid. But I soaked up the feeling of her hand in mine, and tried to flow with the gentle swinging of our arms.

When the song ended and the lights came back on, she just turned and smiled at me, and we gave each other a slight wave, from the hip, and then I watched her skate away. When my dad picked me up, I was silent on the way home in the truck, trying to remember her smell and the feeling of her hand. I thought about her all weekend.

On Monday, back at school, in Mr. Stauffer’s science class, I wrote RG + HD, surrounded by a heart, on my blue fabric-covered 3-ring binder, which also had signatures and logos and sayings all over it from other kids (that was a thing). At lunch, one of the other kids saw it right away and asked me if I was in love with Howdy Doody.

I don’t know how she found out, but at the end of lunch, H_____ D_____ came over to where I was sitting. She looked me straight in the eye, and said, “I’m not your girlfriend,” then turned and walked off. In math class, I dutifully filled in the heart with my blue ballpoint pen, and that was it. Not even a full day did that token stay on my notebook for me to look at and dream about. I don’t remember ever seeing or talking to HD again after that. I was totally ashamed that I had acted so one-sidedly, and I never wrote another girl’s initials next to mine again. I didn’t kiss a girl until my birthday party in 8th grade, and I didn’t have a girlfriend until 10th grade, but my heart fell in love many, many times.

And it still does. I don’t feel like my heart has grown up at all. Honestly, every trip to the grocery store is like playing pinball, waiting for someone to come up and ask me to slow skate.

The Three Ravens, Twa Corbies, Poor Old Crow, Crow Song

The Flute collection contains two songs that help illustrate the fascinating phenomenon of the folk process: The Three Ravens and The Crow Song. Taking a deeper look at the origins of these songs also allows us to make note of some of Ken Guilmartin‘s forebears in collecting and popularizing folk music and creating new compositions that suit the times.

The Three Ravens is a very old English language song. It appears in a 1611 collection by Thomas Ravenscroft (who is responsible for bringing us Hey, Ho, Nobody Home), who, like Ken Guilmartin, both collected and notated existing songs as well as writing new compositions.

In this early form, the story goes that the three ravens are conversing about the possibility of dining for breakfast on the body of a slain knight. Though enticing at first, the ravens notice that the body of the knight is guarded by hawks, hounds and the knight’s lover. The song ends with a blessing, that each of us might have such noble guardians.

The Three Ravens is also included in the important 19th-century collection of English-language music known as the Child Ballads as No. 26. Francis James Child, like Ravenscroft before him, collected and compiled the music that was being sung by people in the towns, villages and countrysides. He notated and categorized music that was being made without notation or category, for the most part, and in this way, is an important link in connecting music of the present day to music of the past.

The version known as Twa Corbies probably comes later, and is in Scottish dialect. The story begins the same, but has a different character. You can read more at the Wikipedia page.

We see many songs in the United States that have similarities to songs from the British Isles, but that are also markedly different, as the influences of African and First Nations musics were intertwined with the European forms. Case in pont: Poor Old Crow, which is included in the seminal collection American Folk Songs for Children (Doubleday, 1948) by Ruth Crawford Seeger, who, as a collector and archivist of folk music, composer in her own right of music quite modern in its time, and mother of Mike and Peggy Seeger and the step-mother of Pete Seeger, was a hugely influential person in the music of the United States. She worked closely with John and Alan Lomax (whose collection American Ballads and Folk Songs is a staple of US historical repertoire) and the Library of Congress to collect folk music of the United States and make it available to the wider public.

Poor Old Crow, collected in Virginia, is the basis for The Crow Song in the Flute collection. The lyrics echo the first stanza of The Three Ravens, with a clearly more ‘American’ form and melody. The recording by Seeger’s daughter Peggy portrays the 3rds (E’s) as more ‘blue’ than the MT recording, which renders them squarely in the mixolydian tonality.

I have led this American version in community contexts, and I enjoy singing it. I was, however, once approached with the concern that the reference to ‘Poor Old Crow, just as black as a crow can be,’ is racist. This concern was raised by a white person, and not by a person of color who had experienced the song in a way that they found hurtful. As a person of mixed racial heritage myself, I was careful to listen and validate the person’s concern, without sharing, in the moment, the connection to the older version of the song. I could see how the song could be presented in a tone and context that could be derogatory, and that it could also be presented in a context that was free from any negative connotations. I don’t see any hard-and-fast reason to exclude it from anyone’s repertoire, as long as it is presented with an open heart and good will. A little bit of history helps, too.