Saturday, May 8, 2010
A clumsy latecomer to the magic in the clearing in the mountains
I was in Washington, D.C. for the Friday night premiere of a play witten by a friend, sleeping on the friend's floor, and he had family coming to town for Saturday night; best I scatter.
The Irish rover in Baltimore suggested I meet him in Virginia. How would I get to Virginia? I wanted to know. "I'll get you sorted out," he said.
I thought something as simple as a ride from the city; but no.
The Irish rover, Pat Egan, was playing a festival that afternoon in Staunton. That night he was playing sessions and partying in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Between Staunton and the mountains was a college town, Charlottesville, Virginia, with a train stop. He put me on a one-way train.
"Get off the train, wander into town. Grab a beer. Watch the girls," was the Irish rover's advice. I did those things, and waited.
He appeared on cue, in a minivan driven by his exwife - still his flautist, on certain gigs - and her new boyfriend. No hard feelings there, Jeez.
I didn't know what to expect of the party in the mountains, was not given any clues about it - specifically was denied all detail by the Irish rover. But he had gone through some trouble, and indeed personal expense, to get me there; and that was encouraging.
For we had wandered together, in a simpler time. We had packed up with an African bush man drummer, a Merchant Marine songster, and a redheaded blues guitar orphan, and driven to a hippie commune in the Missouri Ozarks, where clothing was optional; where so many things were optional.
I am sorry that sounds like a tall tale, for it is strictly factual. Pat Egan and I were together with the Stone Age African drum, the melodies of the seaports of the wide open world, the American blues guitar, the rolling Irish music, and whatever is mine. It was not to be forgotten, that coming together; that confluence. We have not forgotten it. We are always looking for it, for something like it.
Far down a winding mountain road, we climbed out of the vehicle and into a clearing. A house that had been growing under a craftsman's hands bloomed to one side of the clearing; a barn for music he had built stood on the other. Between them, Bass beer was cold on tap, with a tequila bottle atop the cooler. And behind them both, a swimming pool, left in a natural state, with diverted creek water for pool water, and frogs in the pool singing lustily in the night.
The frog is my totem animal; pardon again, for what might be taken as pretention, but is only simply true. I was ecstatic to take in the deep peals of the frogs, singing for their sex. It was a church to me.
A dog wandered up, a bull dog. Simon was his name. I have known many dogs, many wonderful dogs, in many fantastic places. Simon immediately appeared to me as the perfect dog. As I shared this perception with people at the party, I encountered only quiet agreement with an obvious fact to which I was a clumsy latecomer.
Music was here, and there, and over yonder, and further down the trail, closer to the lake, where more frogs sang, and sang more loudly. I was a clumsy latecomer to all this magic in this clearing in the mountains.
Further down the trail were the youth, one young man strumming chords and singing a twenty-first century mountain lad's equivalent of gangsta rap power ballads, all "Fuck you," and "you," and "you," as his buddy nodded along, in the dark with the frogs.
Over yonder a tall rangy journalist, working on a heroic immigrant newspaper story about a Mexican man who swam the Rio Grande thirty years ago to come into this country and ended up in these mountains, stroked story songs on a guitar, carefully heeded by a bearded man from New Zealand.
There, in the music barn, fiddlers and guitarists clustered around the piano, where a bearded man - so many, many bearded men in these Virginia mountains - comp'd along on chords and runs as they all sang familiar songs, filigree'd by a dobro, played by another bearded man.
Here, inside the partly reconstucted house, where I wandered, were young people, gathered in a circle in the shadows, out of view of the party and unto themselves. We play in the dark and the inaccessible places, they seemed to say, in the way they were settled in. We like to play this way. We don't like for you to creep up on us while we play this play, while we play "The Cumberland Gap" and fight over whether it is a two-part song, or a three-part song.
A girl guitar player said, "Peter, you're the fiddler; you're supposed to be the jerk." So then Peter the fiddler roared, "THREE PARTS, DAMN IT!" and they all broke into a three-part "Cumberland Gap," damn it.
I had rambled through these mountains, a little to the west, years before, and sat with the family of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who did so much to capture these songs, and save them for us, waiting in the future. I wanted so much to romanticize these competent, talented, physically striking, and somewhat dangerous looking young people, crowded together in the dark, playing for no one.
Each time I stepped closer for a closer look, for a fuller sound, someone would look up from their instrument, squinting nervously through eyeglasses, as if I were an intruder, not a listener. I was an intruder; I was a listener.
And then they did the thing musicians have always done in the bands of my dreams, they switched instruments around; and in every new grouping, the music was a little more intense, as the person stuck playing a less familiar instrument compensated for absent technique with guts and emotion, and the spirit of the music was laid raw.
It was laid most raw when the girl banjo player ended up standing up and thumping the double bass like she was born to do it, like she would die doing it. At the end of that song, she spoke of thirst; and to keep the music from stopping, to keep her from stopping with the death throttle on the double bass, I offered to fetch her water.
She handed me a plastic cup, with a trace of wine in the bottom: "Just pour the water on the wine."
I went and fetched the water and poured the water on the wine and handed it to her, to help wth her thirst; then I wandered out the half-built house, out onto the patio outside. The patio looked down to the swimming pool frog pond. The frogs sang for their sex.
I thought of Nymah Kumah, the African bush man drummer who had taught the Irish rover and I so much. "Man stole music from the birds, anyway," Nymah told me once.
Man stole music from the frogs, anyway, I told the darkness.
The Irish rover strolled up. Then the flautist, Laura Byrne, who had been his wife. She said, "They cry out until they find their mates, then they quiet down. Then they start having sex. That's how it goes." She wandered back off into the night.
I marveled at the stray frog who continues to sing, after the others have found their mates. There always seems to be the one, in every round of mating. There goes one again. "He's fucking floating," the Irish rover said, pointing out the lonesome, musical frog on the float. "Look at your man over there: 'This is my chance!'"
I wondered if that was the origin of song: not the one who sings for sex, but the one who is nourished on the song, not the sex; the one who sings a song beyond sex.
The mysterious young mountain musicians had come out of the dark house now, out onto the patio, to smoke and talk. A pair gathered around the Irish rover. They knew each other, as old acquantainces, inklings of friends. They were not, to the Irish rover, the creatures of mystery, and a little danger, that they were to me; that I wanted them to be.
The girl banjo player who had played the double bass to death paired off with the more silent, cragged, handsome of the fiddlers. He looked much like the youngest son of the Merchant Marine songster I had known and played music with, when he was young and inarticulate, with swooping bangs and forbidding looks.
Someone called the cragged fiddler by name: "Chance." Of course. Of course, this cragged young mountain fiddler would have to be "Chance". He would have to be, in fact, "Chance McCoy," a name imported wholesale from American folklore.
Chance lost some of his clothes, and jumped into the swimming pool frog pond. "It's really warm," he said to his girl, whose name was and would have to be "Liz Mead" ("mead": an ancient form of honeyed wine). "Just jump right in."
Liz Mead lost some of her clothes and jumped right in. It was not really warm. It was really cold. Chance McCoy had set her up. She cursed him, then kissed him.
Then these two mysterious to me mountain people were out of the water and next to me by the swimming pool frog pond, wet and cold. Chance jumped up and wandered off into the night; Liz stayed put to shake dry her hair. I told Liz how much I had fancied her bass playing; how much she had brought the band alive with the double bass.
"But you can't really hitchhike with it," she said.
Peter, the fiddler obliged to be a jerk, approached and asked if Chance had any more tobacco. Liz searched for Chance's tobacco, found a stick of it, it slipped out of her hand and into the frog pond.
"It went away," Liz said.
I said, "You dropped it in the pond."
Liz said, "It jumped in the pond. It wasn't my tobacco."
And then Chance McCoy was back, with more beer. With more beer there would be more music, soon, there could be no doubt about that. I would intrude again; I would listen again.
I would think of the frogs and the birds, who gave us their music. I would think of the African bush man drummer; now dead. I would think of the Merchant Marine songster, Pops Farrar, now dead. I would think of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, long dead, and his mountain music, still alive, still alive and changing in these competent, unpredictable, dangerous hands.
In the morning, I would leave these mountains with a heart full of hope.
But for a moment that night, before the music came back, there was only beer, and frogs, and tobacco, and friends, and intruders. There were young mountain lovers, less wet, less cold, sitting together by the dark pond, and the frog songs.
"Can we just come back here tomorrow?" Liz Mead asked of Chance McCoy.
Chance McCoy shook his wet head and said, "Let's do that. Fuck whatever we have to do tomorrow!"
Photograph of Liz Mead, on another day, in another mountain clearing, from her MySpace page.