Thursday, December 14, 2023


Something for me to look forward to: this Spanish translation of a book by the Italian writer Leonardo Piccione. The publisher's description (roughly rendered) states:
The 47 stories contained in this volume are linked in various manners with the volcanoes of Iceland, and reveal them from the adventures of the first colonizers of the island to the deeds of extreme explorers, from the old Norse sagas to the NASA missions in the "lunar" canyons of the highlands, alternating science, poetry, chronicle, and legend.
If nothing else, the book design, judging from the interior spreads shown on the publisher's website, is stunning. The Nórdica Libros edition is due in February 2024; there's no word on an English-language version yet, as far as I can tell. The title translates as "Fictional Atlas of the Volcanoes of Iceland."

Monday, December 04, 2023

Produce department

We're lying in bed and there's a rap on the window glass. I get up and open the window. A middle-aged couple are standing on the sidewalk and the man asks me if I have any ramps. I say yes and go to the front door to meet them. On the way there I pick up a handful of limp scallions, which I offer with an apology, saying that ramps are out of season and that's all I have. He and his wife aren't wearing masks (neither am I) but he tells me they've both had COVID. He gives me a dollar and they leave. On the way down the hall I pass the open door of another room, where a male relative is standing next to a tall wooden cabinet. The cabinet is festooned with hundreds of radishes of different sizes and colors (but mostly red), lovingly and symmetrically arranged. Where some people have knickknacks, he has radishes. And now, back to bed.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

(Not) Reading George Eliot

Two hundred pages into my second attempt to read Middlemarch I've thrown in the towel. I went into it with high hopes, having recently enjoyed the 1994 BBC series, which I didn't see when it first ran. I discounted my earlier experience with the book a few years back, which had ground to a halt after maybe twenty-five pages, and I did make good headway for a while this time, and even found myself appreciating Eliot's unhurried, almost dialogue-free narrative style. But after a while I just couldn't stay awake through one more page-long paragraph describing the characters and attitudes of provincial doctors or bankers or marriageable young women. Every sentence glistened with wit and intelligence, but the plot moved at a glacial pace. Now and then an anecdote would perk things up briefly — the most intriguing being the episode of Dr. Lydgate's passion for a French actress who stabbed her husband to death on stage — but it just wasn't enough. In fact I think I would have enjoyed the two hundred pages I did read even less if I hadn't been able to imagine the splendid BBC cast fleshing out the written page. It made me want to head back to Dickens, or, for whatever reason, to Turgenev's Hunting Sketches. In fact the idea of brief "sketches" is now very appealing. Ah, well.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Welcoming committee

We're in the process of completing our second relocation of the year, having most recently moved from temporary digs in Portsmouth NH to our new permanent address just over the Maine border. On one of our last mornings in New Hampshire I went for a morning hike and saw this bobcat crossing the trail just ahead of me. I quickened my pace a bit, figuring the cat would likely disappear into the brush before I could set up a shot, but it seemed to be in no great hurry and even turned around to look back at me for a moment. I've seen bobcats a few times before, but this is the first time I've had one pose. After a few seconds it moved off.

The mid-fall Maine weather has been far warmer than advertised, with temps grazing 80, and for several days the side of our house swarmed with ladybird beetles and assasssin bugs. The latter weren't living up to their name, perhaps because they know that the beetles are somewhat toxic; the two species crawled around each other, pursuing their separate interests.

Then last night, around 8:30, an owl started hooting outside and kept it up for roughly a half-hour. The noise kept setting off our dog, and finally I took him out for a look. The bird, probably a great horned owl, was clearly visible in the top of a tree just across the street and was undisturbed by our presence. It flew off eventually but made a brief return just after dawn.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Hard Times

Sarah Orne Jewett was known for her portrayals of the lives of the farmers and fisher-folk of her native state, but she wrote at least one story that recognizes that nineteenth-century rural Maine, with its abundant water power in the form of rivers, was also a center of industrial production. "The Gray Mills of Farley," published in 1898, tells of events in a company town dominated by a cotton mill. The mill's labor force has arrived in successive waves: first, young people from neighboring farms, then experienced English millhands, poor Irish immigrants, and finally, the newcomers, French-Canadians who are willing to work cheaper and are viewed with suspicion by the older hands. The town is grim and poor, if not, when times are good, utterly desperate.

Jewett largely focuses on the mill's "agent," who is in charge of its day-to-day management and effectively mediates between labor and capital. No stereotypical brutish overseer, he was born in the town, was orphaned at a young age and grew up poor, but gained a commercial education and has returned to run the mills. Jewett describes him as "a single man, keen and businesslike, but quietly kind to the people under his charge." As the story begins, he meets with one of the mill's directors and reports that the mill has done well and will be able to issue a healthy dividend of nine percent to its investors. He adds, however, that he hopes the board will declare a dividend two or three points smaller than that and return some of the earnings to the labor force, whose wages had been cut during a previous downturn and never restored. He notes that the market is currently glutted and that it may be prudent to keep a reserve within the community. His proposal is politely but firmly dismissed; the directors feel no responsibility for the welfare of the workers, who, in their view, should consider themselves fortunate to be employed at all.

Sure enough, a downturn comes and the mill hands are laid off. Penurious to begin with, they are soon barely above starvation. As the months drag on the agent digs deep into his own pocket to help out as many families as he can, and provides an allotment of land and free seed potatoes so they can raise a bit of food. The local Catholic priest (again, portrayed sympathetically) dips into the takings of the collection plate and puts some men to work laying the foundation for a new church. The workers are resentful but have little recourse; many of the French-Canadians depart, returning home or seeking work elsewhere.

In the end, a reprieve comes. Business conditions improve and the workers are called back. But the positive note on which the story ends is tempered by a recognition of the harsh realities of industrial labor.
"Jolly-looking set this morning," said one of the clerks whose desk was close beside the window; he was a son of one of the directors, who had sent him to the agent to learn something about manufacturing.

"They've had a bitter hard summer that you know nothing about," said the agent slowly.
"The Gray Mills of Farley" can be found in the Library of America volume of Jewett's Novels and Stories.

Saturday, September 09, 2023

The Harbor of Lost Ships

Brad Fox, paraphrasing William Beebe's "final, disorganized notes on marine subjects," here describing the fate of shipwrecked sailors:
The sea angel Amphitrite swoops down for the sailors who have served her faithfully, and takes them to the court of King Neptune, who judges whether they've lived by the laws of the sea, whether they've been worthy.

Others end up in a harbor in the far north where lost ships go. Some vessels crossing in the northern seas encounter these ghost ships, appearing and disappearing, flagless, unresponsive to salutations or threats. The Harbor of Lost Ships is locked in by high, barren, icy cliffs. In their shelter lie thousands of hulls, pressed together. Their ghostly crews walk the wharfs or stand still, as if they would sail off the next day, trimming sails and swabbing decks in the icy mist.

The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths
Update (September 2023): Not long after coming across the above passage, I picked up Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs, one chapter of which recounts a tale of a voyage to the extreme north (somewhere above Labrador, or thereabouts) where sailors encounter a mysterious town populated by drifting "shapes of folks." The town, "a kind of waiting-place between this world an' the next," vanishes like mist when the sailors approach. Jewett's description is too long to quote here.

Sunday, August 06, 2023

August notebook

Here's a little object lesson in the compartmentalization of modern life. One afternoon we went out for a drive and as we headed to our car we looked back and saw our striped cat watching us from the window of our second-floor apartment, as she sometimes does. It took a moment before we realized that it wasn't our window at all, but the window of the adjacent apartment, whose occupants we haven't met, and that the striped cat wasn't our striped cat but an apparently identical one belonging to our neighbor or neighbors. Unlike the numerous dogs in the building, who see each other outside and hear each other barking from time to time, the two cats live parallel lives in cubicles a few feet apart, presumably in utter ignorance of each other's existence.


Mysteriously, we've been followed by dragonflies ever since we moved in. When we drive out of the parking lot we often see one hovering over our windshield, as if checking us out, and sometimes we find what we can only assume is a different dragonfly greeting us when we get out of our car at our destination. They're said to be an omen of good luck — and a symbol of Japan, whatever that might entail for us. Today a meadowhawk (many dragonflies have wonderful, vivid names) approached me while I was out walking, settled on my hand, and stayed there for some time. It chose my camera hand, but I managed to slip the other in my left pocket for my cell phone and take a picture.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Sweet Thames Flow Softly

I've always enjoyed this Ewan MacColl song, which I first heard on Planxty's eponymous debut album, but this gentle version (featuring some additional verses) is special. The lead vocalist is Christy Moore, as on the Planxty LP; he is accompanied here by the late Sinéad O'Connor and by guitarist Neill MacColl, who is Ewan's son. (His mother, still living, is Peggy Seeger, half-sister of Pete.)

Monday, July 17, 2023


About six weeks ago we moved out of the house where we had lived since 1990, leaving the town where we had roots stretching back much longer that, and settled, at least for now, into a one-bedroom apartment some two hundred miles away in order to be nearer to our family. Most of our stuff (including a piano and at least 90% of our books) is now in storage and more or less inaccessible. As it worked out, we left town on the very evening that an unprecedented wave of wildfire smoke moved down from Canada and into the New York metropolitan area. We actually missed the worst of it, which came the next day, but even so it made for an otherwordly five-hour drive. And the summer has continued in an ominous vein, with unprecedented heat in the Sun Belt, torrential downpours and flooding in the northeast, and further incursions of smoke.

One of our biggest worries was our cat, who is nervous and averse to being handled (except, of course, when she wants to be handled). We managed to grab her and get her into the cat carrier, then listened to her heavy breathing as we drove along. She never meowed and after a while we worried that she had simply succumbed from stress. Stopping along the way was out of the question. In fact, though initially traumatized, she came out of hiding after a day or so and now seems perfectly content. We suspect that she prefers apartment life; maybe she finds there's less to be responsible for. The dog, of course, can deal with anything as long as he's with us.

I've sought out new haunts, and found a few; more adventuresome outings will have to wait. In the meantime I'm burning through the three volumes of Simon Callow's biography of Orson Welles, borrowed from the excellent local library, and watching Chimes at Midnight.

Thursday, June 15, 2023


Miscellaneous sightings from June wanderings. From top: self-portrait with kodama; white morph of pink lady's-slipper; trailside shrine with Buddhas and rabies tag; forest fungi.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Reading Matter

Over the past few weeks we've been in the midst of major preparations for an upcoming relocation, but a few days ago I realized that I had gotten a bit ahead of things and packed up almost our entire library, leaving only a handful of books, all of which I'd read before, with two weeks still to go. Fortunately, our local library just had a book sale (partially with our donations), and at this point they're giving away what's left. I stopped by, took a look around, and saw more than I expected. Any other time I might have loaded up, but I had to focus on immediate needs only. I passed, therefore, on two volumes of Chekhov stories, Charlotte Brontë's The Professor, a Mary Braddon novel I knew nothing about, Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea, a Dickens novel I don't own, and several other tempting volumes, and settled on three. The first two were obligatory; Seamus Heaney and Mark Strand have long been two of my favorite poets, and the books I found were slender, which is definitely a plus right now. I've read parts of Sweeney Astray in other Heaney collections, but was only vaguely aware that Strand had written a brief prose work on Edward Hopper.
The real find for me, though, was an apparently unread copy of the Bantam edition (c. 1970) of Herman Hesse's last novel, which has been on and off my "to read" list for years. I've actually never read much Hesse, but I'm old enough to remember the time in the 1960s when no sensitive young person's backpack would be complete without a couple of Noonday Press editions of his work. Why this one in particular? Because the premise ("a chronicle of the future about Castalia, an élitist group formed after the chaos of the 20th-century wars") seemed promising, because Gide, Mann, and T. S. Eliot all admired it, and maybe most of all because how can one resist a title as sonorous as Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game) (or in German, Das Glasperlenspiel)?
I left a couple of bucks for a donation to the library. It's a no-lose proposition. If Magister Ludi turns out to be a snooze, at least it will help me fall asleep at night.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023


It's morning
Nobody's up but the crows
Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy
are singing "Can I Do It For You?"
as if they were here in the room
not as if they were dead and buried
these fifty years

As if every breath and every smile
and every finger's touch on the strings of a guitar
hadn't risen up
wrapped in wisps of smoke
and disappeared long ago
into the bustle of a forgotten morning
a thousand miles from here

The sun's just a yellow gash
on the cusp of the horizon
but already the day is opening out
pale and wide and unforgiving
but the worst of winter is done
and somebody somewhere is making coffee
or falling in love

Or anyway falling into their clothes
and Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy
are playing "North Memphis Blues"
because that's what you do
on some cold morning
when nobody's watching
the smoke rise into the air

Monday, April 17, 2023

A Small Rain's A-Gonna Fall

A lovely and curious turn of phrase with a story behind it almost slipped my notice when I was re-reading Rafi Zabor's novel The Bear Comes Home. Two men, Jones and Levine, stand outside a jazz venue that Levine is constructing within the body of the Brooklyn Bridge.
They stood on the large square landing atop the roughed-out stairway and looked riverward across to Brooklyn. It was an indecisive afternoon: the small rain down had rained and now, south on their right to the Battery, a white winter sun alternately masked and unmasked itself behind migrating cloud. The grey underside of the bridge soared out over the river and diminished toward its farther landing, the water beneath the bridge dull as lead except where the sun found it and tipped the surface. (Emphasis added.)
The words "the small rain down had rained," which puzzled me at first, are an allusion to this haunting little fragment of 16th-century song lyric:
Westron wynde when wyll thow blow
the smalle rayne downe can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
and I yn my bed Agayne
The interpretation of the lines and even the parsing of the syntax is somewhat uncertain, but "the small rain down can rain" should probably be read as meaning "the small rain can rain down." The ultimate source of the phrase may be from Deuteronomy (KJV): "My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass." Thomas Pynchon's first short story was entitled "The Small Rain," and Pynchon scholar Richard Darabaner (1952-1985) believed that he borrowed the title directly from Deuteronomy.

There's a discussion of "Westron Wynde" at Early Music Muse.

Friday, March 31, 2023

Freedom down the bending avenue

Songwriter Peter Case has a new record just out from Sunset Blvd Records. Entitled Doctor Moan, it's his first album of original songs since HWY 62 in 2015, and his first ever on which the piano, rather than the guitar, serves as his primary instrument. The shift isn't entirely unprecedented, since two years ago he alternated a bit between the two instruments on a collection of covers of folk songs and blues called The Midnight Broadcast, but still, it's a move into new songwriting territory. It's not entirely a clean break, as there's one tuneful guitar-driven track, "Wandering Days," that wouldn't have been out of place with his work with the Nerves in the mid-1970s. Most of the record, though, draws as much from the postwar generation of jazz pianists like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and McCoy Tyner, as well as bits of classic gospel, soul, and blues, as it does from pop and rock. (As it happens, Case has been sitting in on piano now and then at the Saint John Coltrane Church in San Francisco, and he's been known to sneak in a few bars of "Blue Monk" during warm-ups.)

My favorite track so far, "Have You Ever Been in Trouble?" is built around a few gorgeous dark chords and makes delicious use of the piano's lowest keys. Like much of his songwriting, it explores the world of the down and out (in the West Coast style familiar from Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits) while at the same time weighing the possibilities for redemption. The bridge here is particularly lovely, both tonally and lyrically:
There's freedom down the bending avenue
Do you see someone coming?
Something you can do?
There's one thing I know for sure is real
The moment you surrender
The wounds begin to heal
Here's your reprieve
Ask and you'll receive

"Downtown Nowhere's Blues" engagingly captures the denizens of a joint called the Round-the-Clock Diner:
Out front by the curb they're making noise
A bunch of old men that act like boys
Big T turns to me while I'm try'na chew
Says "If I had a dog half as ugly as you
I'd make him walk backward through Downtown Nowhere"

There are some interesting reverberations between these two songs: "Have You Ever Been in Trouble?" speaks of "the Holy Ghost / Coming down the alley / Just like a megadose," while a woman in "Downtown Nowhere's Blues" who is on "a microdose of LSD / [...] fiddles with the jukebox and her destiny." Different paths, different revelations.

Other than Case's piano and the one guitar-based track, the instrumentation on Doctor Moan is sparse but effective; it features Jon Flaugher on bass and Chris Joyner on organ. The cover art depicts the vintage Steinway upright Case used to record the album. This is definitely a record worth checking out.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

The Hearts of Literary Men

Dard Hunter:
Legend has it that Emperor Wu (A.D. 1368-98 ) tried to procure a suitable paper for the printing of money and to this end consulted with the wise men of his realm for advice. One of the learned group suggested that counterfeiting could only be prevented by mixing the macerated hearts of great literary men with the mulberry-bark pulp. The Emperor is said to have taken this suggestion under advisement, but at length he decided it would be a grave mistake to destroy the literary men of China simply for the purpose of using their hearts as ingredients for paper. In talking over the problem with the Empress she suggested that the same result could be achieved without interfering with the lives of their scholarly subjects. The Empress brought forth the thought that the heart of any true literary man was actually in his writings. Therefore, the wise Empress asked the Emperor to have collected the papers upon which the great Chinese authors and poets had set down their writings. The manuscripts were duly macerated and added to the mulberry bark and it was thought that the dark grey tone of the money papers was due to the black ink used in the calligraphy upon the paper.

Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft

Friday, March 10, 2023

Dream House

In an era of computer animation wizardry it's nice to see older technologies like stop-motion animation being reinvigorated and put to use for intelligent visual storytelling. A few months ago we were pleasantly surprised by Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, and just last night we stumbled upon this little gem. Written by Enda Walsh, The House is made up of three narratives supervised by three different directors, with the common thread being the title building and how it embodies both the nightmarish aspects of home ownership and our insistent need for a place to hang our hats. (For reasons I won't go into, we found it uncannily appropriate to our circumstances.)

The first segment begins in folktale fashion with a poor couple who, after an encounter with a mysterious stranger, find themselves in free possession of a rambling mansion in the British countryside, the only requirement being that they surrender the smaller house that is their own. The focus of the segment is on the older of the couple's two young daughters, who, like Chihiro in Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, is more alert to the dangers of temptation then her parents are. Increasingly creepy as it progresses, it is the only part of the film that features human subjects, here represented by doll-like and delicate figures whose faces convey boundless melancholy.

By the second segment, the rural landscape has become urbanized and contemporary, and the house is in the possession of an ambitious developer (literally, a rat) who has furnished it with the latest mod cons in the hopes of making a killing in the real estate market. When the house is ready for showing everything possible goes wrong, and, what's worse, two sinister creatures — are they rodents, or something unimaginably worse? — take up residence uninvited and show no sign of leaving.

In the final segment, the house has become isolated by rising seas and is now owned by a long-suffering cat named Rosa, who struggles to maintain it and run it as an apartment building with little help from her two tenants, neither of whom pays cash rent. Gentler and more wistful than the other two parts, it ends in a way that is ultimately liberating.

Here and there I sensed affinities with, but rarely overt allusions to, everything from Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, and Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle to the scratchboard artist Thomas Ott and Terhi Ekebom's lovely graphic story Logbook. The trailer below gives a good idea of the film's visual styles, but, inevitably, exaggerates its pace. The film largely avoids the lamentable tendency of contemporary animation to fill every possible second of running time with frenetic activity. When the story is sound to begin with there's little need for all of that.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

"Dark deeds of licentiousness and vice"

"Sometime in March last, a gentleman who lives in Portsmouth N. H., being on a visit to Boston, was induced by a friend of this city, to visit, out of curiosity, the third row, in the Tremont Theatre. In all cities, this part of the theatre is well understood to be the resort of the very dregs of society. Here the vile of both sexes meet together, and arrange their dark deeds of licentiousness and vice. Soon after entering the common hall, this Portsmouth gentleman was struck with the very youthful and innocent countenance of one of the girls in the crowd. He sought an opportunity to speak to her. After some light observations to engage her attention, and not excite any suspicions, but that he was one among the rest, he asked her to walk a little aside, when he inquired how she came to her present condition, &c. He learned that she was from L_______, Vt., that she was very unhappy in her situation, but did not know how to get out of it...

"We warn parents in the country, to be careful about permitting their daughters to go to factories, and especially about coming to Boston. There are men here who have the appearance of gentlemen, who, by the most seductive pretensions, and consummate artifice, seek every opportunity to ruin the innocent and unwary. They do this too, without the least remorse; they even make a boast of their ruined victims. Trust not, then, your daughters here, unless you can secure the watchful care of some well known friend. O how many who have come to this city, innocent and unsuspecting, have been soon snared in the trap of the deceiver, and here found an early, and a dishonorable grave!"

Zion’s Herald, May 9, 1838

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

2 gueles 150 E.P.

The writer and publisher Alastair Brotchie has died, according to social media announcements by the Atlas Press, of which he was the proprietor, and the London Institute of Pataphysics, of which he was a guiding spirit and "Secretary of Issuance." The date of his "disappearance" is given, according to the Pataphysical calendar, in the title of this post; according to the Gregorian calendar it was on January 27th of this year.

Brotchie's biography of Alfred Jarry has been near the top of my list of books to read for several years, but I've never quite gotten around to it, in part because our local library system doesn't own a copy. I do have a copy of the Oulipo Compendium he edited with Harry Mathews.

Pataphysics, founded by Jarry, has been defined as "the science of imaginary solutions," and you may make of that what you will. Shortly before the pandemic broke out I took a trip into Manhattan, in part to see the outstanding exhibition at the Morgan Library devoted to Jarry. One can only wonder what he would have made of such a venue for his work, but I like to think he would have been amused. I haven't been back to the city since.

My condolences to Brotchie's family and friends.

Update: The Guardian now has an obituary of Brotchie written by his friend Peter Blegvad.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Roadside assistance

One summer evening about twenty years ago I left work at rush hour and joined a line of backed-up traffic using the on-ramp to merge onto the parkway I took to get home. Several minutes went by before I made it to the head of the line. The compact car immediately in front of me, driven by a woman who looked to be in her thirties, had no choice but to come to a complete stop and wait for an opening, to the considerable frustration of the drivers behind us, some of whom had started leaning on their horns. I could see the woman leaning anxiously out her open side window, intently watching the cars to her left until, finally, a car moved into the center lane and let her out. The gap was small, however, and so she immediately floored it to get up to speed with the flow of the oncoming cars. What she didn't see, and had no reason to expect, was that two bicyclists, who weren't supposed to be on the parkway at all, had crept up on her right and pulled into the highway lane just in front of her.

As soon as she realized what had happened she slammed on her brakes, but the bicycles were moving too slowly and her momentum was already too great. Boxed in to her left, with only a fraction of a second to react, she had nowhere to go but over the curb to her right. Her car lurched onto the grass border, flattened a small bush, and came to rest at the base of an overpass some ten yards from the pavement.

I had kept my foot on the brake pedal while I watched all this happen, but when the lane opened up I crept out, then carefully pulled off the road onto the grass. So did the car immediately behind me, which was a tan Ford station wagon that looked like it had seen better days. The bicyclists, in the meantime, had heard tires squeal and stopped along the curb to look back. I turned off the engine, walked over to the woman's car, and asked her if she was okay. She said she was but she seemed dazed, distraught. I stepped back a bit, uncertain, half-expecting a cop to come along and sort it all out. After a moment, when nothing seemed to be happening, a heavy-set Black man in his fifties got out of the station wagon and walked, with a barely perceptible limp that suggested a painful hip, over to the woman's car. Even before I noticed the instrument case in the back of the station wagon, I had no trouble recognizing the bass player and composer Clifford Margen. I had seen pictures of him in jazz periodicals and even in a spread in Life magazine. I had a few of his records, one of which some record company marketing whiz had unimaginatively entitled Margenalia. I also knew that he had a reputation for what one writer, with no particular axe to grind, had called "truculence and unpredictability."

The woman tensed visibly as the man approached, but as soon as he spoke to her she relaxed, again said that she was okay, and leaned back against the headrest. He walked around the car once to make sure there was no damage, but by the time he got back to the driver's window he could see that she was sobbing. I couldn't make out his words, but whatever they were they seemed to help and soon she was more composed. He had her take some deep breaths and eventually she managed an embarrassed smile. When it was clear that she was all right he glared briefly at the bicyclists, who were quietly slipping off, and also at me, then got in his car, started the ignition, flipped on his four-way flashers, and crept back to the curb. He waited until the woman had started her car, then put his arm out the window to hold back traffic and let her pull out ahead of him. When they were gone I got into my car and drove off as well.

There was an office party at work the next day, and while chatting with my colleagues I told several of them about the incident. They were about evenly divided between those who shook their heads over the woman's bad driving and those who deplored the presence of bicyclists on a road where they had no business to be. Just one of them recognized the name of Clifford Margen, and he wasn't sure what instrument he played: tenor sax, maybe? Only on the way home that night did I remember what I had, in truth, known perfectly well all along, namely that Clifford Margen had been dead for twenty years, the victim of a landslide on a deserted mountain road somewhere northwest of Mexico City. Even so, I had no doubt about my identification, just as I have no doubt, even now, that there's a tan Ford station wagon somewhere out there driven by a heavy-set Black man who's heading for his next gig and rescuing travelers along the way.

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

You May Leave but This Will Bring You Back

The Memphis Jug Band was a shifting collection of African-American musicians that recorded some 70 or 80 sides of music between 1927 and 1934. Its guiding force was a singer, guitarist, and harmonica player named Will Shade. Other members tended to come and go, although kazoo player Ben Ramey and the guitarist (and ebullient vocalist) Charlie Burse were mainstays. Their music represented a strain of Black entertainment that was popular in its heyday in the 1920s and '30s but which is often forgotten or dismissed today, although a loyal corps of fans, collectors, and musicians have succeeded in keeping much of it in print for those who seek it out. Compared to saxes, electric guitars, and keyboards, kazoos and jugs just aren't generally regarded as being "serious" musical instruments, setting aside the fact that the band also employed acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and Will Shade's brilliant harmonica.

The first Memphis Jug Band compilation I owned was a two-LP album issued by Yazoo Records, which I must have bought not long after it was released in 1979. It had 28 tracks, good remastering, liner notes by the respected blues scholar Bengt Olsson, and some colorful front and back cover art by R. Crumb (who also created the trading card shown at the top of this post).
I got a lot of spins out of the Yazoo set but once CDs came along I started looking around for something I could play in the car, which is where I do most of my listening. (I can't comfortably read, converse, or even think with music in the background, but I can drive.) The Yazoo albums were eventually transferred to CD, minus five tracks, but I opted instead for a 36-track set from a label called Blues Classics. That label, which I think is now defunct, apparently had some sort of arrangement with Document Records, the big daddy in prewar American music re-issues, which originally was based in Austria. The Blues Classic set had perfunctory liner notes, but the tracks were well-chosen and it was cheap. I got twenty years out of it. Still, there were a few songs I remembered from the Yazoo set that I missed hearing.
This year I bought myself the 72-track collection on the Acrobat label shown below. Its liner notes, while extensive, lean a bit too much on Wikipedia and other online sources, and it includes some tracks of minor interest, but it's inexpensive and seems to be more or less as comprehensive as the alternatives. (What to include can be a matter for debate, as the band had various aliases and offshoots.) For the completist, Document Records probably has more thorough coverage, but their compilations aren't as conveniently packaged and several now seem to be only available as downloads. Seventy-two tracks should hold me for a while.
There are reasons why jug band music went out of favor — advances in musicianship, shifts in popular taste, complicated issues of racial and sexual politics, cultural embarrassment at anything that was perceived as "primitive" — but the best of it still has much to offer. It's lively and inventive, it's historically important to the development of American popular music, but most of all it's just plain exuberant fun. We should avoid nostalgia for the grim conditions of the segregated society in which it was made, but at the same time we shouldn't turn our backs on the vitality of its creators.

The first representative track, below, is from the band's initial session, in 1927. According to Samuel Charters, the vocalist is Will Weldon, but the song is really a showcase for the harmonica and kazoo. "Sun Brimmer" or "Son Brimmer" was a nickname of Will Shade's.

"Cocaine Habit" (1930) finds the band backing Hattie Hart, one of several female vocalists they worked with at various times, the most notable being Memphis Minnie. Shade's harmonica is again featured, and the guitar part is played by Tee Wee Blackman, who is said to have taught Shade the rudiments of the guitar.

"Everybody's Talking About Sadie Green" also from 1930, displays the band's vaudeville side; the lively vocalist is Charlie Nickerson.

Finally, here's one of my favorite tracks, one that's not included in the Acrobat set, probably because it was credited at the time to "the Carolina Peanut Boys." It's also from 1930 and Charlie Nickerson is again the lead vocalist, but it's the infectious instrumental section after the first couple of verses that really makes it sing. Vol Stevens plays the hybrid banjo-mandolin, and Shade once again is on harp. It's hard to resist.

The standard print sources on the Memphis Jug Band are the pioneering writings of Samuel Charters (The Country Blues, Sweet As the Showers of Rain) and Bengt Olsson (Memphis Blues); the latter is hard to find. There is an exhaustive, if somewhat outdated, online discography at Wirz' American Music.