Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cosmic union of lumber salesman and journalist

I'll enjoy tracing the confluences that put me together at a brewpub in Asheville, North Carolina with Ed Herron, a salesman of hardwood lumber, long enough to discover that we are both reading Ulysses by James Joyce, and had both advanced roughly as far into the practically impenetrable book.

I ran away from graduate school to play rock music in the early 1990s. When I came off the road, I would bury myself in the basement of the university music library. There I discovered on old LPs Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and of what I taped the two performances that stabbed deepest into my heart were two by Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

I covered a massive gay rights march in Washington, D.C. for an alternative newsweekly. In a break in the action, I marched into the Library of Congress Archive of Folksong and asked about this Lunsford fellow. A librarian wrote out a number for me of a man in Chicago, who comes in on a regular basis and is a descendent.

I met this man in Chicago, before a band gig at The Cabaret Metro. He was a pastor who used music to heal and knew an awful lot about "Uncle Bascom": he had been a beekeeper, fruit tree salesman and country lawyer, who puzzled his family and neighbors by giving away and trading his valuable goods and services in exchange for songs.

I met this man in Asheville, and he took me down South Turkey Creek Road to the home of Lunsford's daughter, Jo Herron, a retired but scrappy senior citizen. Jo eventually opened up to us and made copies of rare recordings and materials to take away, but I was struck by the odd feeling that she had no idea who this man was who presented himself as her cousin.

I petitioned The Smithsonian record label to reissue the one Folkways release of Lunsford, which it now owned, with bonus material on the relatively new medium of CD. I was surprised to get a letter back expressing interest and asking me to put the family in touch with them for permission.

Jo was impressed with my diligence. She opened up to me and admitted, "I don't know that man from Adam's housecat," mean the Chicago pastor, whom I immediately lost touch with and elect to categorize, in the mists of memory, as a tutelary spirit, rather than actual human being.

Jo Lunsford Herron knows how to run a show. She raised the money and curated the recording, had it mastered and celebrated the release of the Bascom Lamar Lunsford reissue on Smithsonian/Folkways at Mars Hill College, which hosts his archive. I was thanked from the podium and in the liner notes as project catalyst.

I continued my love affair with the music of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, recording cover versions of songs he collected - in an A-frame cabin on Jo's land, near where Bascom had once called square dances - and initiating a major archival reissue with a label based (where else?) in Chicago. This has dragged on for years, as difficult volunteer efforts are known to do.

Jo aged. She called one day to put me in touch with her son, Ed Herron. She wanted someone in the family to know how close Jo and I had become, how much I cared about the legacy of her daddy, how I had her permission to work with these valuable materials from their family's past. Joe died.

Last year, when I came to southeastern North Carolina to visit extended family, I drove up to Asheville (some five hours) to meet Ed. We visited the Bascom Lamar Lunsford archive at Mars Hill College. We left feeling like brothers.

This summer, I wanted to do it all over again, but logistics left us only a couple of hours for an early dinner and beers in town. We hardly talked about the project. This was much more a meeting of brothers, heart stuff, hard stuff, life as we are living it.

Ed started one of many stories, "So, I'm reading Ulysses by James Joyce -"

I halted him and produced my copy from my satchel. He was awestruck. We are middle-aged men, a lumber salesman and a journalist, who do not work in academia. We not graduate students or ambitious twenty-somethings trying to read The Great Books in one summer. We are not in Ulysses' target market.

Ed grabbed my copy of the book. He grasped it. He felt my bookmark, a drawing by my daughter. "I am about exactly this far into it," he said with wonder, pinching where I was in my reading.

He told his Ulysses story. Then I told mine. They are both a little private, a little overtly spiritual, for this public medium, but when I called Ed the next day, he said, "That was cosmic" and I said, "It was."

It was.


My picture of Ed is from last summer. He looks about the same now.


Colin said...

Great post!

Tony Renner said...

so cool...

Pamela said...

OK, this Ulysses thing is too weird. I was dinking with the "Next Blog." Just killing a bit of time when your blog came up--and what catches my eye?


I'm muddling/sloughing/whining my way through it right now.

You have to tell me where you are in your copy.

And I'll betchya I'm farther from Joyce's target market than you are.

Anyway, thanks for the bit of serendipity!