Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Flying Squirrel Pie:

What are these strange shapes, ghastly pale with
shining eyes, that haunt my kitchen?
Are they the dead?

No, they're flying squirrels
in my flour bin.

You've heard of Shoofly Pie, surely, but have you tasted it? It's a Pennsylvania Dutch breakfast pie, very good with coffee. I've made one adjustment in a recipe from the late 1800s, and renamed it Flying Squirrel Pie, since they've invaded my kitchen.
The only trick to this pie is that you must have good sorghum molasses to make it. Go to the Amish. Brer Rabbit Molasses will make another sort of pie, and not one that you'll be proud of.

My Dad had a story ~ "There were three moles going along one after the other in their tunnel to have breakfast - Papa mole, Mama mole, and Baby mole. Papa mole said "I smell coffee!" Mama mole said "I smell biscuits!" & Baby mole said "I smell molasses." (teehee teehee)

Preheat the oven to 425. Line a nine inch pie plate with a pastry crust. With a pastry cutter or a food processor, work together a cup & a half of flour, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup butter & add 1/2 tsp each cinnamon, cardamon, and nutmeg + 14 tsp sea salt to make a loose floury crumb. In a bowl, dissolve 1/2 tsp baking soda in 3/4 cup warm water and combine with the molasses until the liquid is foamy & the molasses are completely dissolved. Pour the liquid in the pie shell and sprinkle the crumb mixture over, making sure to go all the way to the edge. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350 and bake for 35 minutes more, or until the center is firm. Serve hot from the oven, or cool on a rack and serve at room temperature.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Stone Egg next door:

Dry masons have started stacking the stone egg I designed for my next door neighbor. The Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy makes a lot of these, and that's where my neighbor got the idea, from one of Goldsworthy's photographs. This stone egg is different though, both in shape and in the meaning, and it's that difference appeals to me. The finished egg will be almost 10 ft tall.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A letter from Jean ~


A trio with Cari Norris.

My friend and mentor Jean Ritchie recently suffered a stroke, and is in the hospital. Her many friends in the traditional music world wish her the best, and many of us are writing back and forth, sharing our memories of all the kind and generous things that Jean shared with us. She is the same age as my Mom, and like Cebah, she had a great sense of fun and a razor sharp wit. Those of us who dared transgress the boundaries of tradition that she considered appropriate to her music know well just how sharp that wit could be. I'm still smarting from it.

So did Bob Dylan, when she made him pay up for using one of her tunes, uncredited, (Masters of War) as his own. I'm sure if he had only had the decency to ask she would have let him use it free. She has been described, accurately, as "the Queen of American Folk Music." I've never counted them, but I know that I've learned at least 50 of her family's ballads and songs. On many a car ride with Jean, she patiently sang ballad tunes for me until I had them memorized. When I was working on The Ballads of the Barefoot Mind, she wrote many emails answering my endless questions and carefully clarifying points concerning how she learned the ballads from her parents and her Uncle Jason. When I asked permission to use her lyrics and family tunes, she quoted a lovely old song that gently reminded me that they were already my own.

Jean wrote this email to one of her folk music friends who wasn't feeling well a while back, and posted it on the Mudcat traditional music discussion board. It is such an insightful and brave introspection:

"Here. We're back- son Jon from a two-week hospital stay,still having tests after getting home as they still can't find what the trouble is. George from another series of test, taking 18 different pills a day, soon to be told to start dialysis. Myself growling around the house with a hundred aches and pains. I can see and feel big changes coming, and know that this long Growing-Old part of our lives is coming to an end--- We ARE old! I start reading sympathetically about poor OLD people, and suddenly it hits me: What? I myself am 86. What do we do with our house? Man- all these taxes, who'll pay them next year? Will we go to a nursing home? Have a live-in nurse? I tell you, it's so hard when you finally realize that Life makes you keep on learning- right up to the end. I guess, as long as I can understand Life's messages, I'll be able to go on.

And I tell myself, "Just think of all the people that ever lived in this world. How many problems and worries and tragedies have they endured, along with the fewer joys and goodtimes and successes? And, when you come down to it, one is one and all alone and evermore shall be so. Or another way of putting it, You got to cross that lonesome valley by yourself.

I don't dread it, once I accept it. I have so loved my Mother and Father, all my gaggle of sisters, my three brothers (only one out of all of them is still in the world with me). We hurt with them if they have pain at the end, but we cannot go with them or ease that journey. Someone said, "The dead always look peaceful." I believe they are. I believe that they have walked the valley and found at last the destination we all are are striving to find. What else is Life, but a trip towards something higher and better? People who have almost died, have talked of being in a dark tunnel with a faint but bright light far ahead; then their passage is forbidden and they have to turn from the light and return to Life- to do an unfinished task there? To help or guide someone else for awhile longer?

I wonder- but it doesn't matter, does it? None of us can live forever. We must live Life to the fullest, then give those behind us a loving farewell. That's what I hope I can do.

I'll stop, because I don't know what I'm trying to say, but I thought it ought to be said. I guess I was trying to understand, myself, that not all of us CAN live to be old, or WANT to, and so arrive earlier at that entrance into the next world. In my personal prayers, I always say in my thoughts, "Lord, I'll stay as long as You need me, so show me what to do..."

Big Mick, feel better, and I hope that Fate, or Karma, or whatever, eases up on you. I know you'll be needed in this Life for a long time, so take the reins that have been handed to you, and have a good, long run. You have many who love you and are running along with you, and that lonesome valley is still far away.

Love to you all, Jean
PS: Darn- I bet y'all will think this is a stupid letter, and tomorrow I may think so myself! But it's what I felt like saying."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Eva ~

Marie Dutton, circa 1930.

A couple of weeks ago I got a call. The caller was an elderly woman - "I'm looking for the Duttons of Dutton Hill." "You've found him." says I. This lady went on to relate that she was recently cleaning out her junk room and happened on a photograph of her dear friend, Marie Dutton - a large photograph, about 20 inches tall, and, all of the newspaper clippings about her murder, in the lobby of the Virginia Theater. She told me she wanted to return the photograph to Marie's relatives. I told her that I was interested in the family history and would be happy to have it. "If we live through Thanksgiving, you can come and get it then. The Lord is bringing the pieces of the puzzle together in these end times." - she said, "Isn't it terrible?"

A couple of weeks passed before I could get a break to go to her house. When I arrived she seated me at her formica kitchen table and showed me the photograph, and the newspaper articles. "It tells it all here." she said, pointing out paragraphs that she'd highlighted in yellow. "Marie was a good Christian woman!" "Eva Wilson! - her own mother said she was the worst woman who ever lived! According to the bible, she was full of evil spirits. Marie called and found out that Truesdale was divorced before she ever went out with him, and she only went out with him in the spirit of mercy."

The newspaper said that Eva Wilson went out for a drive with friends. Suddenly she saw something that made her cry out "Stop the car!" She got out and fell down like she'd been shot. It was Truesdale and another woman. "Woman Trouble" said the newspaper, was the cause of it all.

Eva was waiting in the lobby of the Virginia Theater when Truesdale and Marie came out. The paper said she "pulled out a 38 Smith and Wesson and shot Marie Dutton dead on the spot." Truesdale went on to found a local bank. This was front page in 1935.

The lady wasn't letting loose of the newspaper clippings. She was still studying those. Maybe I could come back in 3 months and take them to the library to copy then. The way she said it made it clear the end times were coming well ahead of that, so don't get your hopes up. She asked me to cut the backing off the frame and extract Marie. "I'd give you the frame, but I'm short on frames, and see, these match." The other photo was of Marie and Truesdale sitting on the porch swing together. There was something racy-gansterish about it. She didn't offer me that one.

Marie, once I looked her up in the family tree, turned out to be my dad's cousin, daughter of his uncle Marion. Surely he would have heard about her murder in the Virginia Theater, but if he did he never mentioned it. He would have been a teenager then, so maybe it didn't make that much of an impression.

Today I made a song about Eva. For some reason, She was the one whose shoes I landed in. Maybe it was because she'd had her lawyer tell the judge she was not guilty by reason of temporary insanity caused by chronic appendicitis. She may have been the worst woman who ever lived, but she was no fool. The song is called "Eva - Woman Trouble."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Alice ~

Alice Coltrane is one of the biggest influences on my music, and this track, with Pharaoh Sanders, is my second favorite. Alice said that Igor Stravinsky appeared in a dream and encouraged her to write music for string ensembles.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

You'll Always Come Back ~ a dream for the ending:

I asked the Ancestors and Eshu, that tricky one,
to help me dream, to bring
strength and understanding - because parting is hard.

In the dream I was making a film of myself -
a film of how I comfort myself when I am alone.
I was in my moss bed, at the great tree's root,
and also in a wonder house, in the inner room.

But then you were there too - you'd come back -
beautiful, as always, with the dust of the
road on your shirt.
We embraced and said, "I missed you." to each other,
just as we always had, in one voice.

Then I noticed a stone, like a small wheel,
embedded in the earth, and picked it up to see
the shapes that fitted in its whorl. "This is a special one!" I said
and then turned to you and said,
"Maybe the others are like us -

they make the barricades just
to keep from feeling the loss of love."

Looking out from the hillside we
were surrounded by the eternal Spring ~
there were iris, and catalpa trees in bloom.
It was so beautiful! ~ I turned the
camera toward the West and pressed record -
but then I knew
that new film took the place
of what I'd filmed before.

That's when I woke up, from the dream, and heard her
breathing still, in her last bed beside me, and remembered
what she'd cried out at the edge, before she fell
in sleep, in peace - "Let's make up! Hold me! Love me!

I got up in the darkness then, to write these
words, so that I could sing them at the end;
"You'll Always Come Back!"

[10 minutes to 4 am, Dec. 13, 2009]


In the meantime -
keep yourself good company,
and remember all
of history
prepares you to be free.

(Alf, stone, notebook. Ase ~ Eshu!)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Strange Taboos of Racial Identity:

About a month ago Robb sent me a care package of some tight jeans, a couple of high fashion shirts, and a book about Kara Walker's art. I'd seen some of her prints in the 21c collection, but the broader look into what she's doing struck a deeper chord, and started me thinking about the beginnings of my experience of race and history.

My Dad sang a couple of songs that offer a glimpse into the minds of the Dutton family in the Antebellum & the first part of the 20th Century; "My Darling Nelly Gray" and "Ole Zip Coon." I learned to sing both as a child, before I was 5 years old, and before I had any idea what, really, they were about. My childhood interpretation, or is it a misinterpretation?, of the lyrics reveal the strange ways that personal, artistic, and social history can intersect.

My Darling Nelly Gray ~ by Benjamin Hanby (my dad's lyrics are a little different from Hanby's)

"In a long green valley on the old Kentucky shore
Sure I've whiled many happy hours away,
Just a sitting and a singing by the little cabin door
Where lived my darling Nellie Gray

(chorus:) Oh, my darling Nellie Gray, they have taken you away
& I'll never see my darling anymore
They have taken you to Georgia for to work your life away
Far from that old Kentucky shore.

When the moon had climbed the mountain, and the stars were shining bright
I'd take my darling Nellie Gray
And we'd float down the river in my little red canoe
While my banjo so sweetly I would play


One night I went to see her, but she's gone the neighbors say
the white man bound her with his chain
They have taken her to Georgia for to wear her life away
As she toils in the cotton and the cane


Now my canoe is under water, and my banjo is unstrung
I am tired of living anymore
My eyes shall be cast downward, and my songs will be unsung
While I stay on the old Kentucky shore.

Now my eyes are getting dimmer and I cannot see the light
Hark there’s someone a-knocking at my door
Oh I hear the angels coming and I see my Nellie Gray
So farewell to the old Kentucky shore.

Oh, my darling Nellie Gray, up in heaven, so they say
And they'll never take you from me, anymore
Oh I'm coming, coming, coming, as the angels clear the way
So farewell to the old Kentucky shore."

When I first learned "My Darling Nelly Gray" all that I knew was that the tune and words were sad. Perhaps by the time I was 7 or 8 I realized that the line "master bound her with his chain" had to do with slavery, and the enslavement of one race (the other race) by my own, but this recognition only deepened the sentimental poignance for me. I had already identified the characters in the song with myself, before the concept of racial difference was added on, a secondary and thereby superficial addition. The emotion of the song was my own before the characters were racially identified. I had little experience of racial differences anyway ~ my friend Amanda was the only African American child in our elementary school. I could see that she was different from me ~ but so was everyone, and in ways that could not be easily seen. I was aware of being sexually "different" by then, and knowing that needed to be hidden for safety's sake.

The perception of the suffering of the characters in "My Darling Nelly Gray" remained a personal identification. I was sad as they were sad, and I easily projected myself into their plight. The description of their ordeal could only be recognized by what I knew of my own ~ singers identify with their songs, and child singers even more so ~ songs are learned and remembered because they are familiar realities, recognized realities. My solidarity was (and remains) with the oppressed and put upon, the enslaved at the mercy of merciless powers, because I was a small person in a world controlled by big, and sometimes dangerous people. That my parents were not at all oppressive, and that, as a child, I had extraordinary freedom and protection mattered not a bit to my imagination. The imagination inhabits the conditions of its own exaggerations. The sorrow of the slaves in "My Darling Nelly Gray" was the same sorrow I felt, for no other reason than I felt sorry for them, and at the same time for myself!

That our current culture, on both sides of the created "racial divide" ~ a culture that we are apparently deeply invested in maintaining ~ stiffens at the idea of a "white" child (or even more especially, adult) imagining with the deepest sense of identification (what deeper level than the emotions do we possess?) being "black" is a testament to our continuing pathology.
And, as Kara Walker's work shows, a sign of how much we prefer the history of our ideas, even enslavement in them, to a real freedom of the imagination. Walker's work reveals how the seemingly perpetual cycle, and frisson, of boundary crossing and punishment utilizes the signifiers of race to satisfy desires we may all be afraid to admit to.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dandyland in the snow ~

Snow was a nice surprise this morning. I have a bit of a ritual about snow days ~ I like to listen to 2 pieces of music; Debussy's "Footprints in the Snow" (for the mysterious, ancient, vast, feel) & "Snowflakes are Dancing" for the motionless motion of watching it fall.

I couldn't find a YouTube of either of those ~ but I did find this clip of the first movement of his Sonata for Violin and Piano, and it is one of my very favorite pieces of music, and it is somewhat chilly... This is one of the last pieces of music that Debussy completed. He said it was " example of what a sick man would write during wartime." He was dying of cancer as he composed it.

This sonata was to be one of series, following the Sonata for Cello and Piano (which I also adore). That he never got to the next in line, a Sonata for Oboe and Harpsichord (two of my favorite instruments) is, for me, one of the great missing things. But perhaps it exists just as vividly in the imagination as it would have on paper or in performance. After all, Debussy claimed to prefer the invisible harmonies evoked by a shepherd's whistling to anything composed by Beethoven.

I think the playing of this lacks a certain winsome moodiness, is a bit strident ~ but still, good.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Preparing the Boujloud in Morocco:

Here's the North African version of this phenomena:

Buttermundl, Krampussen, & "Black Peter":

Winter is here, and the time has come round in Southern Germany for the appearance of the Buttermundl, Krampussen, & "Black Peter". As children we were warned that any bad behavior preceding Christmas would result in Santa Claus leaving us lumps of coal and switches. The apparitions in these photos are image personifications of those unwelcome presents ~ infernal and hard, bad deeds come back to haunt us. A glance at the walking sheafs reminded me of the "harvest wolf" traditions detailed in Frazer's "Golden Bough" ~ the last sheaf of grain is called, in certain European traditions, variously the wolf or witch or supernatural what-have-you, and in one ritual way or another, becomes representative of the harvest god or goddess. On another tack, they seem (to me, unfettered by any need to prove my theory!) to be lingering aspects of the Germanic Mannerbund, (neolithic - bronze age ) youth gangs who roved the countryside demanding sacrificial tithes to Odin, the one-eyed wolf/father god of war, amongst other things. Today I have little time to do more than sketch the equation, which goes like this ~ St. Nicolas aka Odin/Woden + the Buttermundl/wolf-sheaf/Krampussen/horned devils, "unmarried men" demand treats or dispense tricks on uninitiated children = the Germanic Mannerbund in modern folkloric disguise.

It's a bit of coincidence between Black Peter and our Germanic descendent family's Pete Dutton, who apparently had a special hand with children, but many tales are hung on less. (Odinic pun, that ~ now bone up on your Proto-Indo-European myths so you get the gist!)

A little less than coincidence is the similarity between these costumes and certain others, in Morocco, Central Africa, and Japan (Noh) where harvest deities appear in rafia, or masked, with horns, & Pan-like paraphernalia (etymological note ~ "the goods above and beyond a dowry that the bride brings with her"... slaves?) Oh it's all so wonderfully suggestive and magical.

One last connect ~ Jean Ritchie, my singing mentor from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, told me about the "Grampus" that lived in or about the branch near her family home, a sort of water-associated boogie creature. "Be good or the Grampus will get you." etc. The word, Krampus/Grampus was in most ancient times a name for the black pilot whale, smallish as whales go ~ so maybe the start is a dark thing that comes up out of the deep dark.

Friday, November 27, 2009

You'll Always Come Back: Dance Workshop at Skull Alley

November 14th, Louisville, Kentucky
Battle of Dutton Hill through the veil of time.

This fruitless endeavor.

The battle is engaged.

The horror as soldiers fall.

Dance Workshop at 21C

November 15th, Louisville, Kentucky
Carrying the stones.

Music and dance.

Choose your head wisely.

Movement in waves.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The First Recording Made By An African-American:

... from George Johnson had to perform EACH copy of each record individually. It was said that he performed this song 56 times in one day. The lyrics, predictably, are offensive, typical of the time. More on this subject anon.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The West End School Workshop:

Among the many wonderful things that happened in Louisville last weekend, courtesy of The Kentucky School of Art, was a visit with the students of the West End School. These amazing young gentlemen agreed to help me figure out how best to stage a dance version of The Battle of Dutton Hill. Their idea, precise, to the point, and perfectly dramatic, was a revelation, and their dancing, superb. I had been told that they were extraordinary students, but nothing could have prepared me for what turned out to be the best school workshop I've ever conducted. My hat, if I had a hat, would be off to all of the West End School students, and their teachers. I am very grateful to them for helping me solve a problem that, quite frankly, had me stumped. This school should be a model for education in Kentucky.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Eshu = Voice X:

On a recent trip to Louisville, I talked with some middle school students about the Yoruba art objects in the Speed Art Museum. A number of those objects had to do with the orisa Eshu, and much to do with You'll Always Come Back. Last night I woke up in the deep dark thinking about those connections. While the images are fresh in mind, I thought I'd share them. (The illustrations, and the assemblage, are my own.)

It is my understanding that Yoruba cosmology divides the phenomena of the universe into the realms of the seen, or material world, and the unseen world of the ancestral dead, the unborn, and the orisa ~ that unseen world is made manifest in our world, the world of the living, through imagination and performance.

The ancestors and the unborn, in this view, are in a cyclic continuum. The orisa are the realities of natural forces and physical dynamics personified by, and for the benefit of, human understanding. We can only conceive of variations on what we already know, and since the only thing we know are our own human perceptions, the orisa of necessity reflect particular aspects of our nature, described in the terms of our culture and environment. The orisa are original to the Yoruba, their land and culture; the experiential knowledge that they embody is universal - in the sense that certain of the dynamics made explicit in their characters occur wherever and whenever humans live.

The orisa provide a way to understand, and talk about, real phenomena in the terms of human experience - hence they are described as having human characteristics, even when they are observed in non-human phenomena, as in the case of lightning, a manifestation of the orisa Sango.

The orisa Eshu is the embodiment of "the crossroads" - the intersection of boundaries, the meeting, parting, and convergence place of paths, vectors, and experiences. Eshu is (at least) a binary being, a contradiction, a dynamic state of flux; change personified. This convergence point, situated in a state of being, is, for at least an instant of perception, at once a unity of phenomena and a recognition of differences, even irreconcilable differences - a moment when there is certainty of uncertainty. Eshu is the agent of transfer, transformation, and transcendence. Eshu is his own complimentary and opposite twin ~ paradox incarnate, but wait - also not incarnate.

Eshu is sometimes depicted in Yoruba art with what appear to be two, or three horns. These cone shapes represent Eshu's "ori" - head(s) - and destiny(ies) - dual or multiple characters present at once. Eshu's ori are in two worlds. Two worlds, moreover, that may be in binary opposition. In life there is good, bad, and the totality that contains them ~ Eshu is present in, and signifies the interdependence of extremes.

Gaston Bachelard proposed a concept of time, or duration, composed of discrete instants separated by "epistemological breaks." The experience of continuity, or in his terms, the imagination of continuity, occurs when the rhythmic sense of the organism connects these instants (let's call them dots, representing beats...) into a quality of duration; a tempo, a riff, the cellular units of perception, assembled by the will and imagination of the being into the song of life. In terms of time, Eshu then is both the division of duration into rhythmic beats, and the connective line that makes it possible to arrange an recognize them as a coherent pattern.

In YACB Eshu is titled "Voice X", and has the function not only of connecting the disparate frames of perception required by narrative art (dialogue implies at least two), but also a vocal signifier of the movement between levels of self-awareness - from, for instance, sensual immediacy to ironic detachment. This is accomplished with the devices of mimicry, allusion, metaphor, observation/description, recounting, distorting, and sampling - the production of copied content re-situated in context to create new meanings via references and relationships, pointing up the presence of layers controlled by creative activity. These layers reveal Eshu, in performance, in the vertical concept of cogito multiplied. The cogito ~ "I think therefore I am." (cogito1)

Cogito2 then, would be "I think that I think that I am." ~ implying not only the awareness of being, but a second being observing the activity of the first, with some degree of perspective. This perspective is, in essence, a different mode of duration. The effect of an operation is always realized on a different layer of duration from the one on which it is enacted.

Eshu's gear-shifting of consciousness powers extend beyond the immediate powers of human imagination. "He" (you may have guessed by now that any designation of gender applied to Eshu is also temporary and provisional) is active not only in the cogito to the first power, but in the second, the third, at once upward and downward in the verticality of being, to the nth power, infinity; the audacity of (and the fear evoked by) anything and everything beyond.

With these observations in mind, it is easy to grasp the significance of two common examples of Eshu iconography in Yoruba art. Eshu's face typically appears on the carved wooden rim, or boundary, that frames the opun ifa, or divining board, site of the ifa oracle. The opun ifa bridges, in the diviner's performance, the seen world of the consultant and the unseen world of the orisa and Oludumare "the owner of the universe" and source of ase, the animating power of life and wisdom.

It is on the sawdust powdered surface of the opun ifa that the newborn infant first sets its foot upon the earth, having arrived from the unseen world of the unborn on the other side of the board. Thus the divining board is a material object equivalent to a portal or passage between worlds. Eshu, of course, appears as an image shaping the substance of the portal's frame.

For similar reasons, a common household image of Eshu, a shrine in effect, is sometimes an unshaped lump or mound of clay, the potential of form in relative formlessness, situated by a doorway to mark the fluctuating and ambiguous boundary between inside and outside.

The orisa originate in Yoruba land, but have traveled, in the diaspora, and more recently via that most Eshu-like of mediums, the internet, throughout the world.

In the US, one early manifestation of Eshu is found in the legend of the Blues Guitarist (Robert Johnson is one reputed example) who meets the Devil at the Crossroads, precisely at the instant of Midnight, to exchange his soul for the power of superlative musicianship. The conflation of Eshu with "the Devil" does not, of course, originate with the Yoruba. But in one way the moral message is retained, albeit somewhat obscured in a culture where the rewards of individual recognition are often pursued at any cost.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Grandma's Roses:

In a spare moment away from the hospital, I thought I'd post something related to You'll Always Come Back. This painting. about 10" x 24", is oil on wood. The wood looks like it had been part of a box. On the back, in black letters ~ Painted by Sarah Belle (Cundiff) Dutton around 1900. I think that my aunt Gladys tried to restore the faded color of the petals by repainting them, but she had a rather rough hand compared with my grandmother. & the pink she used faded too, as, I suppose, all painted petals must in time. Still, it's a lovely image.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

You have his body:

Both my mom & dad told me at various times when I was growing up that I had "Uncle Billy Cundiff's body." I assumed that meant that he was tall and gangly. I didn't know that Uncle Billy died the year before I was born, and I had no idea what he looked like. During the research for You'll Always Come Back I gradually figured out who was who in some of the hundreds of photographs that came from The Old House. One of those was Uncle Billy, when he was young, and quite dashing. I don't know about the rest, but I have hair and a nose like his.

Ever since finding that photo I've been obsessed with it. He's a very unusual looking man, with a face that seems hyper-sensitive. If I were to pick an ancestor to be, I'd certainly pick him, even though I know very little about his life.
If I'd only asked my dad, I'm sure he could have told me a lot about his uncle, but alas, like so many other questions I have about his family, it's unlikely that I'll ever know anything more about him than I do now. I asked my mom this evening if she remembered Uncle Billy, and to my surprise she did remember him visiting with my grandmother at her sister's house in Somerset. What was he like? I asked. "A statue." That was all I got.

When I first got the idea of reconstructing the bodies of my ancestors I had a moment of shock at the thought, as though just by thinking it I had broken a taboo. Should the body of an ancestor be imagined as erotic? And how to imagine a shared ancestral body?

For some reason this image is a little less shocking to me as a negative. Without the period clothing there's nothing to place the body in time ~ fashion has changed, but the body has changed little in millions of years.

Uncle Billy Cundiff, in blue and gold:

A mannerist drawing of my great uncle Billy Cundiff, 1878 - 1958, blue positive and gold negative images ~

Gold Old House:

"The great function of poetry is to give us back the situations of our dreams. The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting-place for daydreaming. (...)

... There are children who will leave a game to go and be bored in the corner of the garret. How often I have wished for the attic of my boredom when the complications of life made me lose the very germ of all freedom!
And so, beyond all the positive values of protection, the house we were born in becomes imbued with dream values which remain after the house is gone. Centers of boredom, centers of solitude, centers of daydream group together to constitute the oneiric house which is more lasting than the scattered memories of our birthplace. (...)
And we should not forget that these dream values communicate poetically from soul to soul. To read poetry is essentially to daydream."

The Poetics of Space ~ Gaston Bachelard

"The Old House," as we called my father's homeplace, is the subject of the third quarter of You'll Always Come Back. More exactly it is the "oneiric house" (the term is one of Bachelard's neologisms ~ meaning " the dreamed house of dreams."). An oneiric house can hardly be diagramed. Intimate, and mysterious, sites cannot be blueprinted ~ that's why I made this image gold.

I wasn't born in The Old House, and really, I was only there on certain interminable Sunday afternoons, when the mantle clock effectively slowed time down until it was in a state of absolute stasis. The clock was assisted by the ancient floor and its carpets. Once time ceased its movement, the floorboards, polished by generations of passage, and the carpets, with their obscure and dark designs, released an invisible powder of hypnotic ether that had the power to permeate and fossilize every living being. Even the sunbeams, filtered by gauze curtains, were merely pathways for the dust of ages to travel on. The light roads always returned to the forest of carpet fiber, an infinitely tiny grey and gold snow that brought absolute silence as the weakened sun sank and the horizons faded. The Old House was where I first experienced eternity.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


When I was a little girl, long before Dan arrived, I was told the story about the devil flying over... Sitting at my Grandma's knee, (Sarah Belle) would say, " the devil's apron was so full he couldn't make another mile, so he dumped his whole apron on this hill." Grandma had gentle hands. Her long, slender fingers moved constantly, doing "lapwork", as seamstress work was commonly called in the old days. Grandma sat in a rocking chair, near the window facing west. It was always dim in the room unless the sun was tossing its last glow... The light passed through the starched, white, southern curtains that hung over wavy glass windows. Under the window sill was a three tiered shelf built by my daddy. Grandma would tell me, " Sally, your daddy built this little sewing shelf for me." The top of the shelf had her three prized possessions, African violets...two dark purple and one, pink. Grandma would tell me not to touch the violets as the petals bruise easily and the foliage would recoil from my little fingers.
She would seat me by her, so close I could smell the lye soap from her gingham dress...As
I sat there, admiring the violets,sensing a special moment that was to come, Grandma would allow a quiet and contemplative moment or two to pass. As a precocious child, impatient to explore, move or have something happening all the time, I somehow sensed a greater good would come from being still.
Grandma made stools from old Donald Duck orange juice cans bound together and covered in her hook rug patterns. On one of these, I would sit silently at her knee, listening to the old mantel clock ticking away. I watched those slender fingers as they parted the burlap covering the bottom two shelves...she removed a small cardboard box. She opened it carefully, bringing out one piece of candy. Her gentle hands would break the solid white candy stick in two pieces. "The striped candy is for Phyllis, Ruth Ann and Bobby, but you like this one don't you, Sally?" A child can only concentrate on the gift and not the it goes. Somehow, even as a child, I knew, Grandma was giving me a very special moment.
I'm not sure how this ritual began or why some 58 years later it still makes me pause to remember the gifts of a loving grandmother, patient father and hell-bent -for- leather mother.
The lessons from Dutton Hill are still unraveling... go to the quiet spot near the spring and listen, our ancestors left us space to hear the gift and time to remember the givers.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Where the rocks come from:

In an earlier post I repeated a story that my dad told me, when I was a child, concerning the origin of the rocks on Dutton Hill. "The Devil was flying over with an apron load of rocks and his apron strings broke."

In my 20s I discovered that the story was Welsh. (My dad's mother, my grandmother Sarah Belle, was a Cundiff, a family with Welsh roots.) In Wales the Devil was a Hag - the load of rocks was called "the dribble." I suppose it makes a bit more sense for a Hag to be flying overhead carrying apron loads of rocks, but a child's ear supersedes later reason. It is definitely the Devil.

Not that I had much of an idea as to what "The Devil" looked like. The only familiar image I knew of then was the rathe suave-looking devil on the Red Devil Lighter Fluid can. My parents, thank goodness, did not believe in Biblical-style devils. The only function of The Devil in our household, was to be a comical character, or a metaphor, most often sarcastic.

This little painting is my third version of this image. All three images, years apart in the making, are basically the same. I think that in the 2nd one ( a drawing), the Devil is flying the other direction. Once I began studying the history of art, I saw how the artists of the past envisioned the Devil, and eventually I zoomed in to survey the evolution of the image. In the earliest paintings, the Devil is most often a hybrid of insect and animal parts. Having a face for a crotch is really common. The Pan-style Devil, with ("cloven") goat feet and horns, etc. didn't become popular until the 19th century. The earliest devils were green, black or brown. Red, in those days, was reserved for painting the robes of the clergy.

As I was working on this, I realized that my Devil, the flying one with the faulty apron load of rocks, has certain features that must be present in order for me to approve of it. The eyes are crossed, and the tongue, pointy, is stuck out, in annoyance. The body is humanesque, but with reptilian claws, and scales. The tail is dragon-style, with an arrowhead-type tip. The wings are battish, but with moth or butterfly spots. All in all, the thing is ridiculous, but, and I realized this as I lavished care on painting the tiny scales, very precious. The sky he flies across, the world he has accidents in, is both miniature and vast. Once he's played his part, my hand, or rather the hand of my child, picks him up like a delicate toy and carefully stores him away in the box where things too wonderful to risk losing are kept.

Monday, November 2, 2009


One of the great things that my parents showed to me ~ the full moon. If the weather was nice, we would find a good place in the yard, or out in the field by the house, to sit and watch the full moon rise. I thought everyone did that until a high school girlfriend happened to be at our house on the night of the full moon and told me how strange it was. It's still an event here on the hill, strange or no, and it is particularly beautiful tonight.

Friday, October 30, 2009

All Soul's Night ~ from "A Vision":

It's almost Halloween. On cue this afternoon, the dandyland trees are stripping down to their skeletal costumes. I've been having an interesting conversation about "the past", with my friend Diane. Thoughts on the subject deepened for me when I realized that she has written, as an art critic, about my work for 25 years! When mentioned that she was headed to Shakertown this wknd for some r & r & perhaps a glass of wine, my mind gyred round to W. B. Yeats epilogue to "A Vision" - a book that (thanks to my brother-in-law Mike's thoughtful gift of it) had some influence on my work.

Whenever I come up with some preposterous diagram that would explain everything about something I'm working on, I think of A Vision & the borderline kooky figures of gyres and moons Yeats used, all caught up in his Order of the Golden Dawn mysticism - usually that's enough to caution me.

Here's the poem I had in mind...

All Souls’ Night:

William Butler Yeats
Epilogue to “A Vision’

Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
And may a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost’s right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.

I need some mind that, if the cannon sound
From every quarter of the world, can stay
Wound in mind’s pondering
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound;
Because I have a marvellous thing to say,
A certain marvellous thing
None but the living mock,
Though not for sober ear;
It may be all that hear
Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock.

Horton’s the first I call. He loved strange thought
And knew that sweet extremity of pride
That’s called platonic love,
And that to such a pitch of passion wrought
Nothing could bring him, when his lady died,
Anodyne for his love.
Words were but wasted breath;
One dear hope had he:
The inclemency
Of that or the next winter would be death.

Two thoughts were so mixed up I could not tell
Whether of her or God he thought the most,
But think that his mind’s eye,
When upward turned, on one sole image fell;
And that a slight companionable ghost,
Wild with divinity,
Had so lit up the whole
Immense miraculous house
The Bible promised us,
It seemed a gold-fish swimming in a bowl.

On Florence Emery I call the next,
Who finding the first wrinkles on a face
Admired and beautiful,
And knowing that the future would be vexed
With ‘minished beauty, multiplied commonplace,
preferred to teach a school
Away from neighbour or friend,
Among dark skins, and there
permit foul years to wear
Hidden from eyesight to the unnoticed end.

Before that end much had she ravelled out
From a discourse in figurative speech
By some learned Indian
On the soul’s journey. How it is whirled about,
Wherever the orbit of the moon can reach,
Until it plunge into the sun;
And there, free and yet fast,
Being both Chance and Choice,
Forget its broken toys
And sink into its own delight at last.

And I call up MacGregor from the grave,
For in my first hard springtime we were friends.
Although of late estranged.
I thought him half a lunatic, half knave,
And told him so, but friendship never ends;
And what if mind seem changed,
And it seem changed with the mind,
When thoughts rise up unbid
On generous things that he did
And I grow half contented to be blind!

He had much industry at setting out,
Much boisterous courage, before loneliness
Had driven him crazed;
For meditations upon unknown thought
Make human intercourse grow less and less;
They are neither paid nor praised.
but he d object to the host,
The glass because my glass;
A ghost-lover he was
And may have grown more arrogant being a ghost.

But names are nothing. What matter who it be,
So that his elements have grown so fine
The fume of muscatel
Can give his sharpened palate ecstasy
No living man can drink from the whole wine.
I have mummy truths to tell
Whereat the living mock,
Though not for sober ear,
For maybe all that hear
Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock.

Such thought—such thought have I that hold it tight
Till meditation master all its parts,
Nothing can stay my glance
Until that glance run in the world’s despite
To where the damned have howled away their hearts,
And where the blessed dance;
Such thought, that in it bound
I need no other thing,
Wound in mind’s wandering
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.

Oxford, Autumn 1920

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Anna's Doll ~ sound and images:

I didn't realize that I'd written this song on the anniversary of Anna's death - October 26th, 1901, until I assembled the images for this video. Anna, in the only known photograph of her, appears at the beginning.

Pete's Spring:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Doll

I put you in a little wooden boat
and set you off in the sea of earth.

You gird the curve of my night -
in the center is your doll.

You never let go of the hold
you have on your doll.

I couldn't really see your face,
after you'd sailed for a year and a day.

Your face flew away on the wind -
but I could see the doll's.

You never let go of the hold
you have on your doll.

When we brought them down
from the crow's nest, D.H. said "Those are Anna's dolls!"

He knew what we didn't then -
that they were your dolls.

You never let go of the hold
you have on your doll.

Friday, October 23, 2009


A watercolor with lyrics on petals ~ (top to bottom, right to left)
"No, the proud will not endure. They're like a dream on a spring night. The mighty fall, like petals on frost."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Dolmen Next Door:

My neighbor Richard has an interest in sculpture. Earlier in the summer he surprised me by asking me if I was familiar with the work of Andy Goldsworthy, (I am.) and if I would help him make a giant stacked stone egg similar to one of Goldsworthy's. After I got over a silly initial reticence about it not being my idea, I made a full-scale maquette for the 10 foot tall egg, and a cutout of the curves so that a mason could stack the stones to the right curvature. That's a work in progress.

In the meantime Richard pointed out a pile of limestone boulders and asked me if I could come up with an idea for a sculpture that would utilize them. My idea was to make a dolmen, as such things are sometimes called in Ireland, Scotland, England, & Northern France. The word comes from the Breton "tolmen" ~ tol = table + men = stone ~ "a prehistoric monument of two or more upright stones supporting a horizontal stone slab." Some of them were tombstones. I've always wanted to make one, and this morning, we (a great crew of workers) did.

This one is a little unusual, compared to the ones I've seen in Ireland, in that one of the supports of the top slab is a big geode. Geodes are fairly common around here. Often they are hollow, the interior lined with quartz crystals, the globular shape formed by intense pressures deep beneath the earth. A crystalline core formed under great pressure is an image I can work with - it fits - and I really think the geode looks perfect supporting the massive capstone on a single point. Do the crystals inside feel it? Perhaps it reminds them of their childhood.

There's a lot of interesting info about portal tombs and dolmens here: