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.