Top: Raglan Road. Below: classic concert at the Alhambra.
The networks and the papers are gearing up for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 28. I saw the saintly John Lewis on television the other night.
Memories kick in.
I was covering the Mets in Pittsburgh, and watched the march on television during the day, captivated by the mood, the words, the faces.
Then I got on the bus from the Hilton, down by the famed confluence, to funky old Forbes Field up on the hill. At some point I got into a conversation with Maury Allen of the Post and Jesse Gonder and Alvin Jackson of the Mets, who had all been watching in their rooms.
I’ve always treasured this memory of four people standing around the clubhouse, so enthused about Martin Luther King and the other speakers, and the people who had come so far, the joy and hope we felt.
I’d forgotten that Jackson was the starting pitcher that night, lasting four and two-thirds innings against his old club, taking the loss in a 7-2 defeat. Gonder pinch-hit for Choo Choo Coleman with two on and no out in the ninth and hit into a force play. Roberto Clemente went 3-for-4 and drove in 3 runs. I can’t remember if we asked him about the march after the game. I’d like to think we did.
Throughout the bad times and the good times, the memory remains of that march. The four of us had been sure, as the Sam Cooke song would say a few months later, a change was gonna come.
Nowadays, the sour faces on Cantor, McConnell, Paul and Boehner seem straight from the bad old days. And we are assured by Chief Justice John Roberts that things are so good that we do not need a voting rights law anymore. Governors and legislatures do their best to deny access to voting. Fifty years ago I stood around a clubhouse with three friends and talked about the March on Washington.
The box score from that game:
The history of the Sam Cooke song:
A more recent story about the March on Washington:
Ladies and gentlemen, the late, great Sam Cooke:
James Agee is back, with a revived version of the work he did with Walker Evans in the American South during the Depression. His ear supplied the words and Evans’ eye supplied the photographs of stoic people trying to survive.
Here is another great collaboration I seek out at Father’s Day: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber’s adaptation of Agee, sung by Eleanor Steber at a concert in Carnegie Hall on Oct. 10, 1958.
The song works for Mother’s Day but even more for Father’s Day, because the lyricism and discordance suggest what is coming soon. Agee’s father died in 1916, which was commemorated in Agee’s A Death in the Family, published in 1957, two years after Agee’s death.
The song describes Agee’s family sitting outdoors, in a time before air conditioning and television. It begins:
It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy….
I heard it first on WQXR-FM years ago, and bought the CD, Eleanor Steber in Concert, 1956-58. I later read that Steber was from Wheeling, West Virginia, and wondered if she would have felt any affinity for Knoxville, further down the Appalachian range.
The song reminds me of summer evenings in the 1940’s, when my family stayed outdoors, in our own back yard in the borough of Queens, to catch some slight breeze. I remember fireflies and the Brooklyn Dodgers on the radio and my brothers and sisters and my parents.
This is where I usually lose it:
All my people are larger bodies than mine...with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth…
When I play this song, I think of our parents, talking about books and politics and the old days, suggesting what is possible for us in our lives.
For those of us who know that our parents were good to us, this is a memory. For others, it may be an ideal, a hope.
* * *
The concert above is from 1948, when the work made its debut. The pianist is Edwin Biltcliffe.
Jane Redmont’s web site has a wise tribute to the song, and includes the lyrics:
My childhood friend Alan Spiegel wrote a lovely biography and critique of Agee in 1998:
He sounds best on vinyl, even with a scratch or two, accentuating the throb in his voice, the emotion in his heart. It’s good to accumulate a few dings over time.
I went right to the vinyl on Monday when I heard Richie Havens passed at 72. He once made an album called Mixed Bag that (with all due respect to Dylan, to Joplin, to Cash, to Motown, to The Band) says everything about America in the late ‘60’s. Or maybe now. I think young people should know his work.
Mixed Bag was the album of the age, not just because Havens became famous for holding the fort at Woodstock until reinforcements arrived. That was in August of 1969 when it was beginning to seem possible that we -- the ubiquitous we – might be making some points about the war and injustice. But in 1967, when he made Mixed Bag, things were pretty bleak.
He caught the poignancy of Dylan’s Just Like a Woman and the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby and he carried the torch big time on San Francisco Bay Blues.
But check out the song Handsome Johnny, written with Louis Gossett.
Havens mentions Handsome Johnny, marching off to one battle or another: Gettysburg, Dunkirk, Korea and Vietnam and then he adds Birmingham, which is pertinent since he came from Bed-Stuy back in the day. Then he blurts:
Hey, what's the use of singing this song
Some of you are not even listening
I say, in the spirit of Richie Havens, in homage to the ‘60’s, give a call to some of those senators who ignore the 90 per cent of this country on the gun vote, and give Handsome Johnny one more play over the phone.
Richie Havens gave the title to Pete Fornatale’s marvelously eclectic radio show on WFUV, still ongoing, but Pete left us a year ago, and now Richie Havens is gone, too. I can only imagine what Don McGee will play in his Havens tribute on Saturday.
I heard the news from Christine Lavin, that talented and caring staple of the New York folk community, who wrote:
“I played at many Canadian festivals when Richie was one of the headliners -- backstage he was always very modest and humble, always interested in meeting the other musicians and watching others' sets. He's one of those musicians (and there's not a lot of 'em) who you know exactly who he is from the first strum of the guitar or the first words out of his mouth. Very rare.
“It was always a hoot to watch him do that crazy signature 'kick' of his as he finished his sets. His taste was very broad -- I love what he did with Ervin Drake's It Was A Very Good Year, and the Beatles' In My Life, Eleanor Rigby, and With A Little Help From My Friends -- and his Dylan covers went a long way toward cementing Bob Dylan's reputation as the premiere songwriter of his generation.”
Sat next to Richie Havens in a Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks on Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street a decade or two back. He had sheet music with his name hand-written across the top. That’s how I knew who it was, since I never saw him perform. I could not bring myself to say, “Hey, man, I love your work,” because….well, he was enjoying his coffee and glancing at the music sheets, and why disturb an artist in his repose. But, hey, man….
How refreshing, in the dark of winter with snow on the ground, to see all that young talent at the Grammies.
My wife and I laughed at the great commercials, geared to a younger audience – not the remedies for old-age ailments we see on MSNBC. Different crowd. Guess the kids on the Grammies don’t have achy knees yet.
I’ve lost all touch with current pop music – got enough Satie and Marley and McGarrigles stocked up to last my lifetime – but the performers were so accessible, so good, so attractive, that we watched right through to the tribute to performers who died in the past year.
I knew about Dave Brubeck and Levon Helm. But there was a shock when I saw the name Mike Auldridge.
It brought me back to the fall of 1972, when I was covering the award ceremony of the County Music Association in Nashville. (Had an interview with Loretta Lynn coming up.) I was staying in some chain motel east of I-65, and overnight some zealous promoter slid a couple of vinyl 33 1/3 albums right under my door.
One of them was Old Train by a sensational fusion bluegrass group called the Seldom Scene. Another album was Mike Auldridge – Dobro. I never turn down anything free, so I stuck them in my luggage and played them when I got home. And I still play them today, particularly because of the dobro of Mike Auldridge on both albums, so thoughtful, spare, clear.
The best track on Dobro is Rolling Fog, credited to Paul Craft and sung by Auldridge, who apparently did not do many solos. His mellow baritone is timeless -- as good as men like to think they sing in the shower.
Find a place to creep in, underneath my door,
Whisper to me, while I’m sleeping,
Make yourself at home.
Knowing that the Seldom Scene was based in Alexandria, Va., I always figured I'd be in DC and notice they were playing in some club, but it never happened. I did interview John Duffey and Dr. John Starling, a surgeon and soloist, on the phone for the Times before their gigs in the New York area, but I never caught them. Why?
I’ve been singing along with the Seldom Scene for a long time, courtesy of my turntable that fascinates my grandchildren no end. I missed the obituary for Mike Auldridge in the Times on Dec. 31 but vinyl is coming back, and I just played Rolling Fog on a damp gray Monday morning.
Thanks to the Grammies for letting me know about Mike Auldridge.
Like a comet on one of her science-oriented songs, Christine Lavin is subbing for John Platt on Sunday, 23 September, on WFUV-FM, 90.7, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
John is a treat every Sunday. Chris doesn't fly this way as much now that she is living upstate.
Yes, she will do a section about Pete Fornatale, who starred as the Male Foil on her guest rendition of Sensitive New Age Guys years ago.
The only drawback is that Chris doesn't seem to plan any Christine Lavin songs. That can't be right, can it? I said I would boycott unless she does Yonder Blue. But really, she should do something.
Over the weekend, I drove 14 hours around New Jersey and Pennsylvania and was reminded of the skill and courtesy of most long-distance truckers.
Piloting 80,000 pounds of mobile weight at high speed, the vast majority of truckers are better than any other category of driver.
I used to make long hauls in my car when we had places in Kentucky or Florida, and I learned to rely on truck drivers, particularly at night when traffic thinned out and we all could make time, legally, of course.
This past weekend I was reintroduced to that reassuring sequence of giving the truckers plenty of room to pass me, or merge in front of me. I would flick my bright lights a couple of times and they would ease that behemoth in front of me, and when that bulk settled into place, they would tap their brakes once or twice, producing the ritual blink that says thank-you. .
Many years ago, traffic was held up on Interstate 4 outside Orlando. When we got to the point of obstruction, a truck had jackknifed and turned over, strewing stuff all over the road. I doubt the driver survived. I made up my mind I would make sure all those trucks had room to ease carefully into the lane they needed.
Sure, once in a while some cowboy with white-line fever barrels too fast, tailgating or changing lanes without signals. He needs to get off the road and into a rest stop.
But most of them are really good – better than the yuppies trying to control a van with one hand while babbling into a cell phone, better than kids veering from lane to lane, better than seniors lumbering along in campers.
For decades, I put in so many miles for work and family that I came to relate to truckers. Years ago I bought a cassette at a rest stop north of Richmond, Virginia – Best of Road Music, Volume II, great stuff from Bill Monroe, Hoyt Axton, Red Sovine, Jerry Jeff Walker. One very sweet song is Blue Highway, by John Conlee, about a trucker who reassures his wife that his night-life is non-existent as he roams America “in this whining time machine.”
I want that trucker to get home safely. I want all of us to get home safely, when I am driving at midnight, and some trucker I will never meet gives me the tap-tap flicker of his brake lights.
(Nice truck video below)
He arrived out of the ozone in the very late ‘60’s, a voice straight off the Fordham campus. On WNEW-FM, a station with its share of edgy types, he came off as much more than sophomoric but not yet a grad student – a perpetual junior, who was starting to get it. That is a compliment.
Pete Fornatale maintained that mix of wonder and knowledge as long as he lived, which was not nearly long enough. He died Thursday at the age of 66.
He was a friend. We lived about a mile apart in Port Washington for decades, and took long walks around the old sand mines on Hempstead Harbor. We talked about serious issues as we walked – spiritual things, political things. He was deeply affected by 9/11 – talked about it on the air at WFUV-FM, his first and final station.
He didn’t seem much interested in talking sports, thank goodness, which gave me the leverage to ask him about his music contacts.
There were perks to being a friend of Pete’s.
He introduced us to our heroes, Anna and Kate McGarrigle, in some Village basement dressing room, right after a show.
We sat with him when he emceed a benefit brunch at the Lone Star, when Richard Manuel and Rick Danko were about to go back on the road. Check out the High on the Hog album. Richard sings She Knows in that sweet falsetto, and at the end Pete and Richard salute each other. Now all three of them are gone, and so is Levon.
Pete and I took our sons to a Grateful Dead concert at the Nassau Coliseum.
He introduced me to John Platt, his Long Island buddy, now a Sunday-morning presence on WFUV.
And one night in a club on the South Shore of Long Island, he introduced us to Christine Lavin, his friend, now my friend. Chris once performed Sensitive New Age Guys live on Pete’s Mixed Bag show – using Pete as the male foil. That night in the club, she called out both of us to sing backup. She’s currently on the road, working on a tribute to Pete that will be played sometime over the weekend on XM radio and also on WFUV-FM on Saturday. We are all in shock.
But the best part was the music, the thematic shows, where Pete could find four or five songs that belonged together. (Doug Martin’s obit in the New York Times on Friday does a great job explaining Pete’s technique. )
I hope this doesn’t get Pete in trouble with the authorities – what can they do to him now? – but he used to make copies (cassettes, which dates me) of his best thematic shows. I play them on my walks.
One show was Ladies Love the Beatles, amazing arrangements of old favorites.
Another show was about aviation, with a sensational version of Tree Top Flyer by Stephen Stills. Afterward, Pete admits, with that heh-heh laugh of his, that the song just might have been about an illegal pursuit.
Another cassette was about the Sunday papers, all those sections, including the so-called funnies, with Adam Carroll’s song urging Dagwood to take Blondie up on the roof for a glimpse of the sky. That one certainly puts some zip in the step.
Pete was still growing, still learning, still thinking, still talking. My deepest condolences to his family. I’ll miss the walks but I’ve got the cassettes.
When I was writing about Levon Helm of The Band before his death on Thursday, I referred to the commonality of American and Canadian culture, pertaining to pop music.
I was not saying it all sounds alike, but that modern technology and communications have exposed all of us to various strains of music that we know and love.
The Band produced a new blend of rock, folk and country from all over the continent. Levon, bless his heart, brought Arkansas north of the 38th Parallel.
When the soul singer pictured above delivered the first note of Let’s Stay Together – the first high note! -- everybody knew he was doing Al Green. Of course, it was at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and “The Rev” was in the audience, and President Obama quickly made a Sandman joke (Sandman Sims, a noted tap-dancer, used to give performers the hook when the Apollo audience had enough.)
Not everybody watching the President got the Sandman reference, but who didn’t recognize Let’s Stay Together? It’s in the culture.
I’m an official Old Guy, and my iPod has Brazilian music, Latino Music, the Chieftains, Anna and Kate McGarrigle with Quebec accordions, Joe Williams at Newport, Lucinda Williams, Thomas Hampson singing Stephen Foster. Not one culture, but so many cultures, all out there in our ozone. When the American President can do Al Green, we are getting somewhere.
Response to Thoughtful Reader Brian – II
The other day I mentioned a double Yankee connection to Stan Musial. This was before I gave a talk about my Musial biography, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, a lovely building on the Grand Concourse.
Brian asked: just what were those connections? Well, in 1938, when Musial was already signed by Branch Rickey’s vast Cardinal farm system, he told a scout from his home-region Pittsburgh Pirates that the Yankee empire was showing an interest in him.
Apparently an un-named Yankee “bird dog” had spoken to him, according to a Musial friend who was trying to get the Pirates interested in the local boy. But the Pirates couldn’t touch Musial because he was under contract, and the Cardinals quickly sent him to his first minor-league post in West Virginia, as a wild lefty pitcher.
The other Yankee connection? When Musial slumped in 1959 and manager Solly Hemus saw fit to bench him, the Sporting News ran a copyright story that the Cardinals might trade Musial to the Yankees for St. Louis home-boy Yogi Berra. Musial said it was ridiculous, nothing to it. He had already blown away a proposed trade for Robin Roberts a few years earlier.
The question is: how would Musial have done as a Yankee, either at the start of his career or at the end? Perhaps he would have gotten lost as a wild young lefty pitcher, and never gotten a chance to show his hitting ability. He only got to play the outfield regularly in the Cardinal chain after blowing out his pitching shoulder while making a diving catch in center field.
Years later, the Yankees found a position for a shortstop named Mantle, and they found ways for Berra and Howard to co-exist. My guess is the Yankees – or any club – would have discovered the kid could hit and they could have used him in left field or at first base, just as the Cardinals did.
In 1960, the Pirates turned down a chance to get Musial for their pennant drive. Could his bat have helped either the Yankees or the Pirates in that wild World Series?
Oh, yes, Musial visited Yankee Stadium in his first two World Series in 1942 and 1943 and he hit his last all-star homer in 1960 in Yankee Stadium.
Those are his Bronx connections. With impeccable good sense, Musial managed to spend the last 70 years in a grand baseball city that loves and appreciates him. He did fine.
They played music from deep in the collective continental soul. Four Canadians and a drummer from Arkansas.
First time I saw Levon Helm was backstage at the Garden during the Dylan tour in ’74. Somebody had placed a backboard outside The Band’s dressing room, and he was messing around with the ball, between shows. Wish I had said hello, but I was spying on Dylan’s sound check, so I kept moving.
Now his family says he is dying of cancer.
My favorite song from Levon is Ophelia because it is so….so…southern.
Boards on the window/Mail by the door….
Reminds me of funky neighborhoods in the south, where people come and go.
Although what could be more southern than Levon’s buzz-saw rasp on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down?
Only met him once. He played Loretta Lynn’s father, Ted Webb, in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter. I had written the book for Loretta, and the movie people graciously invited me to the openings in Nashville and Louisville.
I was afraid the movie-makers might commit a Beverly Hillbillies version about a part of the world I love. But as soon as I saw Levon as the slender, bashful miner, I knew the movie was going to be respectful.
The second night, there was a party at the hotel, with Loretta and Sissy Spacek jamming together. Sissy could crack up Loretta by imitating her voice and her down-home bended-knee gestures.
Levon was singing backup. It was the women’s show.
During a break in the music, my wife sidled up to Levon and told him how good he was in the movie, and then she added, “You can sing, too.”
He might have had a bit to drink, but not enough that he couldn’t detect the compliment.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
“He was so cute,” she recalled on Tuesday, when we heard the awful news.