Monday, April 21, 2014


paper airplanes

I did take to my bed, and I did take books with me.  Two of them were superb, for different reasons.  I loved them both, again for different reasons.  I bought them at the same time on a recent visit to a local new-book store, one because I was searching for it, the other because I stumbled over it and had to bring it home.  The latter:

Adam Van Doren's An Artist in Venice (David R. Godine 2013).  A near-perfect book for the dilettante in need of more repose than usual.  Beautifully made, a pleasure to hold and read, with color illustrations throughout of the author's charming watercolors depicting Venetian architecture, and reminiscences of the author's visits to Venice, from his childhood to the present day.  A pleasant combination of art, history, and memoir.

Each chapter opens with a pertinent quotation.  One such, early on, is this, from Fran Lebowitz (p.21):

"If you read a lot, nothing is as great as
 you've imagined.  Venice is -
 Venice is better."   

Since I happen to have The Fran Lebowitz Reader (Vintage 1994) keeping company with The Family Mark Twain omnibus on my bedside table at this very minute, the presence of this unexpected quotation made me smile.  Overall, a lovely book for the house-bound and sad-at-heart, dealing as it does with the patron saint of melancholy, if one can call a city such a thing.  Watery, gorgeous, doomed, ruinous, romantic - I've never been there but I hope to see it someday.  And when I do, I'd like to make some paintings of my own.

The former - remember, there were two books? - is something I've waited to read, hoped I'd be able to read, but honestly never expected to.  When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011, I thought, Well, that's it then.  The third volume in his magnificent travel trilogy is unfinished and now it will be so forever.   But he did leave an unfinished manuscript and a related diary, and his biographer Artemis Cooper and travel writer and editor Colin Thubron worked together to "tidy it up" (as The New York Times review puts it).  The result:

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (New York Review Books 2014).  I finished reading it last night, with thanks in my heart.  The book takes up where Leigh Fermor's earlier books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water left off, chronicles his travels on foot throughout Bulgaria and Romania in 1934, and finishes up with his Mount Athos travel diary from early in 1935.  He has just turned 20 years of age.  Part of me is consumed with envy over the mere fact of his trip - as one of the blurbs on the back of the book jacket says, "The descriptions of waking in unfamiliar places are so seductive that even the most home-hugging reader will long to wake somewhere unknown." (Anthony Sattin, The Guardian.)  That's me, home-hugging.  Here on this rural acre.  Not walking to the Black Sea and around the edges of the Aegean.  Then I thought, Wait, when I was 20 years old, where was I...?  I was in Russia - Russia! - the only time I've ever been overseas - walking around Moscow and Leningrad and many other places between the two - looking at art both religious and secular, from candle-lit gold-edged icons to the carriages and ballgowns of Catherine the Great.  Maybe someday I'll tell you all about it, but for now the upshot is that I can't say I haven't traveled, and lived.  It's just that Leigh Fermor's books awaken that usually dormant desire with his spellbinding descriptive prose, and throughout this book the reader is aware that the world he describes is, for the most part, gone, and cannot ever be experienced this way again.  So the aforementioned desire becomes that for which there is no conclusion.  More melancholia - he is well aware of it and mentions the Romanian word dor, "...meaning a vague, anxious, unfocussed unhappiness and longing..." describing a mood of "...irretrievable gloom."   

He calls his book "private archaeology" (pp. 153-154) and that term is fitting.  The first two volumes of his trilogy are so polished and gleaming, like old silver, and this third unfinished one so broken and imperfect.  Though some of his sentences are perfect:

"Quietness dropped from the sky."  (p.99)

"The cold air was afloat with the smell of herbs."  (p.230)

I kept stopping to write them down, as I read along.  I also took note of the fact that Leigh Fermor was reading Byron's poetry for much of the tail end of this trip.  He tells us, "I bought Byron's verse yesterday, very cheap in a little bookshop." (p.270)  He bought the collection in Salonika (Thessaloniki) before departing for Mount Athos, and his journal tells us again and again of nights spent reading Byron by the fire in various monastery guest rooms.  He reads Don Juan, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, The Bride of Abydos, Lara, and to bring us back around full circle somehow, Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice.  He says (p.326), "I am growing fonder and fonder of Byron; I can't see why our odd nation sets no store by him, to the amazement of Europe."

In many places he has been greeted, in fact, with enthusiasm and kindness, only because he shares his nationality with Byron.  I loved the strange contrast of his reading of worldly Don Juan and all the rest in such a devout setting, and it also brought back my own reading of Byron from over a year ago.  Leigh Fermor also speaks of another favorite Byron of mine (and many others), Robert Byron, and borrows his book about Mount Athos, The Station, to read while there (p.319).  Little did he know at the time that he himself would, alongside Robert Byron, go on to be considered one of the greatest travel (a limiting word, for what he does, but there it is) writers of the 20th century.

One of my favorite pieces in the whole book is a paragraph written on Mount Athos, describing a small part of his stay at the vertiginous Simonopetra (p.313):

"Yielding to a childish impulse, I got a piece of paper from my pack, folded it into a dart, and threw it from the balcony; it soon got into a tailspin, and corkscrewed into the treetops.  The second, however, floated out slowly, and began to descend in wide circles, trembling on the breeze, and sometimes seeming to stop in mid-air altogether.  It was wonderful to watch it, descending the void so leisurely, down, down, down, till at last, tiny with distance, it vanished among the leaves."

It is a childish gesture, but he wasn't that far from childhood, then, and that irreverent act becomes a portent.  Because our lives, and the books we make about them, are very much like little paper airplanes.  Put together somehow, launched out into the void.  Often falling from sight too quickly.  Often soaring first.  These two books, the first about Venice and the second about a long journey, remind me of the first and second of Leigh Fermor's paper darts.  One so quick and to the point, and the other - his own - the long, beautiful descent.                     

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


far afield

Well, what a time it's been.  Last week a beloved older relative of ours died - this was not completely unexpected but remains a shock.  And this week a beloved younger relative of ours needed help navigating a life transition.  Without going into unnecessary detail, this contrast of young and old has been quite stark.  I feel like I'm standing in the middle of a big field, watching one crop being scythed ahead of me and a new crop being sown behind me.  Middle age, is this what it's like?  Everywhere I look I seem to see some sort of memento mori.  That's life, I guess.  Thus I am considering taking to my bed.  With a stack of books and possibly some snacks.  Back soon (maybe).      

Sunday, April 06, 2014


remembering Peter Matthiessen

Music books aside for now, for a moment of remembrance - here is a short story.  When I was about 25 years old and was working for a new-book store, we in the trade book department provided the books for a lecture and book signing by Peter Matthiessen.  I heard his talk about conservation and literature, then sold books afterwards.  He needed a pen to sign books for people and in the midst of the fray I passed him my "good" pen, the one with real ink that flowed beautifully.  We sold books in the hallway and he signed them for anyone that wanted them signed (me included), and then went back into the lecture hall to speak to some remaining people and sign a few more books in there.  After the crowd finally dispersed, just two of us from the bookstore remained, and the graduate student who had arranged the lecture in the first place, and Matthiessen himself - a vivid presence in the otherwise nondescript hallway of this bland academic building.  We thanked each other and talked briefly about religion (his Zen journals, Nine-Headed Dragon River, and classic The Snow Leopard are among my favorite books) and he asked me if I was a student of Zen.  I so, so wanted to say yes, because I was reading widely about Buddhism at the time, and I was star-struck besides, but it wasn't true and so I mumbled something like, No, I am just a seeker.  Of what, I still wonder.  Anyway.  He was kind and thoughtful and his voice sounded more like that of my grandfather than anyone else I've ever heard.  He left with the graduate student, and it was just the two of us from the bookstore, packing up the leftovers.  It was then I realized Matthiessen had taken my pen.  Oh well!  I let it go and hoped he would do some more good writing with it.  But.  When I went back into the lecture hall for a final clean-up, there, placed carefully on the center of the podium, held neatly in place by its little lip, was the pen.  He obviously hadn't remembered who he borrowed it from, but he knew it wasn't his to take and so he didn't.  This small act, this tiny, kind decision, seems to me to be at the heart of spirituality and morality.  You do the honest, right thing, just because it is the honest, right thing, in actions both large and small.  That small action of his seems large in my memory, and I hope it was an indication of how he lived the rest of his life.  His literary legacy points in that direction, surely.  I still have my signed books and I will always think of him with tenderness.  Reading his obituary this morning was an emotional experience.

Saturday, April 05, 2014


a book for sinners

Books, books, books!  Sing a song of books ♪ ♫... What's better than books, especially on a rainy day indoors with a warm woodstove and a nearby rocking chair.  Here is one, another from the group of books I've amassed over the years about American vernacular music.  I bought this for four bucks at a library sale ten years ago.  The American Songbag by Carl Sandburg (Harcourt, Brace 1927): 

I love the dedication page.  I love it so much I will quote it in its entirety, with its small caps and all:


                    FUN, GRIEF

It's like one of his poems.  The apologia page is also wonderful.  So why not quote that too, it its glory:


                                                          CARL SANDBURG
Chicago, 1927

Of course in the book itself, the margins of these lovely chunky blocks of small caps are perfectly centered and justified on both sides by the able typesetter.  Which I am not, and which distresses me.  But I digress.  Sandburg gives us, in this book, nearly five hundred pages of lyrics, music, and commentary, roughly organized by theme and region, including Dramas and Portraits, Minstrel Songs, Tarnished Love Tales or Colonial and Revolutionary Antiquities, Pioneer Memories, Hobo Songs, The Big Brutal City, Prison and Jail Songs, Blues, Mellows, and Ballets, The Great Open Spaces, Mexican Border Songs, Southern Mountains,  Picnic and Hayrack Follies, Close Harmony, and Darn Fool Ditties, Railroad and Work Gangs, Lumberjacks, Loggers, Shantyboys, Sailorman, Five Wars, Lovely People, Road to Heaven, etc.  Many classics are here, in interesting versions, with extra verses.

Sandburg's short introductions to many of the songs contain some real pearls.  For example, before the ballad "Willy the Weeper," about a chimney-sweeper dope fiend (p.204):

"The lines 'Teet tee dee dee dee dee,' are lingering and dreamy, supposed to indicate regions where the alphabet is not wanted."

Or this, from the standard "Foggy, Foggy Dew" (p.14):

"Observers as diverse as Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Arthur T. Vance and D.W. Griffith say this song is a a great condensed novel of real life.  After hearing it sung with a guitar at Schlogl's one evening in Chicago, D.W. Griffith telegraphed two days later from New York to Lloyd Lewis in Chicago, 'Send verses Foggy Dew stop tune haunts me but am not sure of words stop please do this as I am haunted by the song.'"

Haunting, yes.  Good music really gets under our skin and stays there.  One more quote from Sandburg (I love so much of his poetry, and it is a pleasure to hear his voice speaking about music too), from his notes to "The Frozen Girl" (p.58):

"An old ballad is often like an old silver dagger or an old brass pistol; it is rusty, or greenish; it is ominous with ancient fates still operating today."

One interesting thing about reading these books of songs right through as if they were regular books - the same songs appear in them in many versions, with often wildly divergent verses, yet they remain the same songs.  I read the version of "A Pretty Fair Maid" on pages 68-69 and was surprised to see that this song was about a sailor returning home, because the lyrics I already knew were about a soldier.   Tim O'Brien sings and plays my favorite version

If people are enjoying seeing and hearing about these music books, I will continue for a while.  Lots still on the bookshelves here that I haven't yet mentioned.

Friday, April 04, 2014


getting in touch with my inner hobo

One summer during college I lived in an apartment next to some railroad tracks.  In the middle of the night the train whistle would sound, the headlight on the engine would sweep an arc of brightness across the bedroom ceiling, and the cars would clack-clack by for a few slow minutes.  I loved it all.  When I saw the boxcars during the day, the names on them read like poetry.  I had a few friends back then who hopped trains illegally, around Maine and elsewhere, but I never did myself.  But I thought about it, during those young-and-stupid years!  Really, though, as with so many other things, I'd rather stay home and read about that kind of life than actually live it.  That way I can preserve the romanticism I continue to feel about hoboes and the open road.  On this theme, more music books from my collection, today.  The first: 

The Hobo's Hornbook: A Repertory for a Gutter Jongleur collected and annotated by George Milburn (Ives Washburn 1930).  The author says in his introduction that "...the folk-lorists, busied with mountaineers, Negroes, and cowboys, have made but scant attempt to catch and embalm specimens of the American vagrant's balladry.... John A. Lomax only found one.  Carl Sandburg's American Songbag, perhaps the most comprehensive collection of American folk-songs yet published, includes a slim collection of four."  (p.xvi)  To right that wrong, Milburn gives us 280 pages of hobo songs on the themes of life on the road, trains, prohibition, the Wobblies, hobo gatherings, monikers, migratory work, the police, etc., and also a nice glossary of hobo language.

I bought this copy from a local bookseller (sadly now deceased) in the year 2000 for twenty bucks. I love its burlap-y cover.  Another item from the book room - I also purchased this softcover staplebound pamphlet locally but I don't remember when or for how much.  I think I bought some old vinyl records with it, from the same dealer, in a lot.  I know I've had this for at least fifteen years:

Hobo Songs, Poems, Recitations, Etc.  (International Brotherhood Welfare Association 1920s?).  This fragile publication has a few pieces cut out of it, and the front cover is detached, but I love it all the more for its shabbiness.  It feels redolent of the era.  Speaking of which, more books, by someone who lived the hobo life because he had to and wrote about it so well that it still lives and breathes in his pages:    

Some books by the incomparable Woody Guthrie: a hardcover second printing of his classic Bound for Glory (Dutton 1943), a softcover of his anthology Born to Win (Macmillan 1965), and hardcover first editions of Seeds of Man (Dutton 1976) and Pastures of Plenty: A Self-Portrait (HarperCollins 1990).  I've read the first three and browsed in the fourth, and can say he was a wonderful writer.  Guthrie opens Bound for Glory with hoboes (himself included) in a crowded boxcar, then returns to his childhood in Oklahoma, then comes back to the present day - the great depression, the dust bowl, riding freight trains to find work - and almost incidentally, toward the end of the book, singing.  His writing style in these books is just as inventive and descriptive as his songs.  I guess I don't need to talk about how influential Woody Guthrie's music was and is.  I mean, holy crackers.  But I will mention that I do love the Mermaid Avenue collections of his songs that Wilco and Billy Bragg recorded fifteen years ago, and I see from the wikipedia entry on them that an anthology of the complete sessions and outtakes was just released two years ago.  My favorite songs are from the first Mermaid Avenue collection - Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key and California Stars.  Love the lyrics and the music, and these particular renditions.

I've got many more books about hoboes but they are narratives that don't involve music, so I will leave them for another day.  I like having them around.  Trains, too.  There are train tracks, now, a mile down the street from our house, between us and the ocean.  Sometimes I walk down the street and cut across a small section of the tracks to a certain view I love of the harbor. I like to sit on the edge of the embankment and watch the sea birds for a while, and sometimes I take my sketchbook and do some drawing. And from our house, every few days, I hear the train whistle late in the evening.  It feels like home.       

Wednesday, April 02, 2014



More books from my music shelves, today.  I've been fascinated by the Lomaxes for some time now and have stumbled across a few of their books locally over the past two decades.  John A. Lomax was born in Mississippi in 1867 and was raised in Texas, and his first book contained many of the cowboy songs he collected all over the west (I don't have a copy of that, sadly).  He went on to collect folksongs for the Library of Congress.  Often his son Alan Lomax helped, and Alan became a song collector and musicologist  in his own right.  Their work is catalogued at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and many of their recordings are available on about a hundred different cds from Rounder.  The first two books I have for show and tell today are:

John A. Lomax's memoir Adventures of a Ballad Hunter (Macmillan 1947) and Alan Lomax's biography Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and "Inventor of Jazz" (Duell, Sloan and Pearce 1950).  About a decade ago I bought these hardcovers from a local secondhand book shop (no longer open) for fifteen bucks each.  I also bought the following, from the same shop:

The outside is a little scuffed and worn around the edges.  But.  It's really nice.  And I will tell you that when I had my own open shop and was actually making decent money for a few years there, I would occasionally buy myself something really nice.  I coveted this particular book for a while, then gave in and spent over a hundred bucks on it.  Because I wanted to read it and own it, and also because of this:

It is without the slipcase it once had, but it still is a very good+ copy of the signed first edition of American Ballads and Folk Songs by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax (Macmillan 1934).  It contains over six hundred pages of songs, musical notation, and commentary, with sections entitled:  Working the Railroad, The Levee Camp, Songs from Southern Chain Gangs, Negro Bad Men, White Desperadoes, Songs from the Mountains, Cocaine and Whiskey, The Blues, Creole Negroes, Minstrel Types, Breakdowns and Play Parties, Songs of Childhood, Vaqueros of the Southwest, Cowboy Songs, Songs of the Overlanders, The Miner, The Shanty-Boy, The Erie Canal, Sailors and Sea Fights, Wars and Soldiers, White Spirituals, Negro Spirituals, and more.  There are so many songs noted here that are now considered standards in every musical genre - it makes for fascinating browsing.

But let me return to Adventures of a Ballad Hunter for a minute (I just finished reading it, and haven't read the Jelly Roll Morton book yet).  At one point John Lomax is living in Chicago and hanging out with some newspaper reporters and music lovers, one of whom is his friend Alfred MacArthur.  (Another is Carl Sandburg, but I will save that story for a future post.)  MacArthur later writes to Lomax and recalls their time together (pp. 90-91):

"'The time was ripe.... Here were we in a modern metropolis, all farm boys or small-town boys, and all getting a little sick of the efficiency, the mechanism, the culture of the big industrial cities of the 1920s.  A lot of people were turning to folk songs, too, at that time.  A few years later, and the radio and phonograph began the rage for cowboy songs, rural songs, mountain music, hill-billy ballads, all representing an escape from the complexities of a civilization which was over-scientific, over-capitalized, over-mechanized....  (We) had had our fill of sophisticated programs and artists.  We were ready for realism, for the genuine folk music, and it seemed important, seemed nostalgic and natural when you sang it.'"

It still does.  Surely this is the main reason many of these songs became standards, and are still known and sung today.  And we need them more than ever!  That shock of authenticity is like a splash of cold water that wakes the open-hearted listener up to what is real.  In a word, it's an antidote.  Because in spite of the folderol of contemporary life - with all its gadgets and difficulties and distractions - the basics sure haven't changed much.  At bottom we are still concerned and preoccupied with the same old stuff as ever, aren't we.  The timelessness of love and tragedy.  Like the Blues, which Alan Lomax calls at the end of his father's book (Adventures of a Ballad Hunter p.297):

" folk definition, simply 'a good man feelin' bad' or 'trouble on a po' gal's mind' or 'the achin' heart disease.'"

Folk and roots music seems to undergo a more or less constant string of revivals, and in recent decades I've loved hearing new songs that sound old, and old songs that sound new.  One more book today:

Another big hardcover.  This one has a very shabby exterior, so here is the fine title page instead, of the Lomaxes' popular ballad compendium Folk Song U.S.A (Duell, Sloan and Pearce 1947), with piano arrangements by Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger, father and step-mother of Pete Seeger.  I've only browsed in it a little, but it's on my stack of books to read next.      

Monday, March 31, 2014



Or, a brief musical interlude?  I am still reading books by John and Alan Lomax, and others, from my music shelves here at home, but I took a little break last night after picking up a secondhand copy of Counting My Chickens... and Other Home Thoughts by then-Deborah Devonshire (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2001) at a thrift shop yesterday.  It's a diminutive book made up of short diary entries and deadpan funny essays on all sorts of topics and people.  When I opened it right up to the delicious little section entitled Stolen Books, about the books she keeps in her own room so houseguests won't steal them, I had to smile when she told me that of her "unstealables" (p.167), "Most precious is The Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley."  (p. 168) Which is of course Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown 1994).  I also had to smile that she added a The to the title, since she was famous for not reading books.  But loved this one, being an Elvis fan!  She says of the book, "If that goes, I give up." (ibid)  I love small coincidences such as this that somehow knit the disparate threads of one's reading together.  Okay, back to the books...

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