This morning, an alumni retreated into the courtyard from the locked gate of Branford College.

“How do we get out of here?” she pleaded.


The answer can be simple.

You put on your running shoes.  You wait until someone enters from the outside.  You slip out the gate.  And you set out for parts unknown.

While in school, my attention (perhaps our attention) was turned inward toward whatever adventures and drama were insulated within those many stone courtyards.  Rarely did I venture beyond the bounds of the residential colleges.  And if I did, only a few blocks distant to a late night falafel joint or a beeline to the pizza at Wooster Square.

But I was rarely driven, nor did I incite myself, to truly explore.  It was impressed upon us that beyond the moated buildings of our campus lurked threats and dangers.  It was better to stay safe.

On this morning I ran out on Chapel Street.

To my chagrin, I was reminded that I never learned the cardinal directions of this landscape.  I lived here for four years and never thought to contemplate the prevailing winds or through what tributaries and estuaries the water flowed.  I didn’t know how the neighborhoods and town functioned.

Today on this run I learned that there had once been a blizzard in 1888 that had dumped 52 inches of snow over three days.

I learned that double streetcar tracks once ran out into the countryside, far beyond any point that I could imagine.


On several corners I saw connects hanging out, waiting for their peeps.

I saw Seventh Day Adventists dressed up and walking to worship.

I discovered a wetland laced with paths and trails.


I saw a monument to the Spanish American War, but stripped of it’s memorial plaque.  I wondered about pyrrhic victories and what would drive someone to remove the plaque, and was reminded that every victory implies another person’s loss.


I discovered a skate park.


I found a boy who could ride a wheelie for a very long time while spinning his front wheel in the air like a top.

I learned that cattails are native to the wetland, and that they are under constant threat from the advancing phragmites.  If you look closely, you can see them preparing for onslaught, amassing in the distance.


I remembered that the world is ripe for teaching if we choose to learn.

I was reminded that the victor always controls what and whom we choose to memorialize.


And perhaps, in this case, that the victory was premised not on an absence of slavery, but on the promotion of an economic arrangement that merely privileged slavery in a different form.


I learned that Joan Baez and the Doors had once played in the New Haven Arena.  In it’s stead, an FBI building now stands.


I learned that there once was a man named Camp.  And he played football at Yale Bowl.  He developed the snapback from center and the system of downs, things of which I still have scant inkling.


I learned that a network of rail lines once filagreed throughout New England and that this network capillaries once promoted all manner of human interaction and communication.  I longed to travel and engage in that way.


I saw how community is woven from the most frail and ephemeral of connections.  And that connection may be that thing for which, in whatever way possible, we must constantly strive.


I realized that although Yale may have been my whaling ship, it was an ever beautiful and ever imperfect vessel indeed.


Day 3 Maui in Two Elements

IMG_3066Wind and Water.

That’s what the masseuse Laura said as she did some Lomi Lomi thing on my back yesterday.  Double-triple Aquarians (whoever they are) have a really hard time on these islands, she said.  They just kind of float out into space.  But you need land.  You need to be grounded.  And there’s not much of that here.

Laura’s Lomi Lomi, I guess, may be immaculate proof of that.

So two days ago I threw up that post about, what?  Bill Graham. Running.  A dead body on a path.  Switching out of a hotel.  I need to be writing about troop movements in WWII, and instead I was punching the keys on all that other stuff.

It really was a string of non-sequiturs, a string of non-sequiturs that had an audience of precisely. . .zero.

So post it I did.

Then some people read it.  And one person in particular, Poppy Davis.  (Some day ask me for the Poppy story).  And Poppy shared the post with some of her friends.  And then things kind of blew up.  Because one of those friends happened to be Laura who in a former life had worked for Bill Graham Presents.  And so the post went to her FB and then to all the former Bill Graham staff and acolytes and that all apparently turned into a conversation.  And it turns out that Laura is here on Maui.  Not only is she here on Maui, but she’s, like, two blocks away from our new hotel in Wailea.

And not only is she two blocks away, but she just worked a benefit that involved Jackson Browne and Wavy Gravy among other musicians and they had all come to Hawaii and were booked at….you guessed it….the hotel from which we had checked out.

And like us, the talent couldn’t take it. They found the environment strangely strange.  One singer left to stay somewhere else.   Wavy Gravy was weirded out (and that guy comes pre-weirded.  I imagine it might take a lot to further weird him out…)  Who knows on what dark and lonely road Jackson Browne set himself trudging.

So that’s how we ended up with Laura the fantastic traveling masseuse from Na Alii Massage in our hotel getting fantastic complimentary massages.  Laura wanted to make sure that I got all the dead body ju-ju out of my system.  Which she certainly did.

And on the way, I learned where to get good fish tacos.  And about Laura’s husband who is way into history. In particular WWII history.  And in particular what went down in Eastern Europe and precisely who’s village was slaughtered by whom.  And about an elder relative who in her 80’s had nowhere to go until she heard from someone that in New Mexico you could live in University dorms as long as you attended classes.  So this ancient woman enrolled in some classes, moved into the dorms, hoarded shit to the ceiling, and all the other freshman students kind of looked after her.  It went on for years. And about how one  can be trapped (by addiction, by life, by whatever) and the discipline of self that can help one break free.

I also learned about the second-to-last-Jewish-refugee kid to be adopted from the Army barracks in upstate New York.  And a little more about why a man who should have been so reviled was in fact so loved.  “Bill Graham single-handedly created the system,” Laura said.  “He was the one who built the socket that allowed millions of people to plug into the Universe.”  The Dead on their own? They couldn’t have done it.  They were the channel, but they needed this huge system – a system of Graham’s devising – to make it happen.

In 1988 soon after Anna and I started dating we went to a New Year’s show at the Oakland Coliseum.  Anna had confessed that she didn’t really like the Dead.  She said that she would have preferred watching the The Tom-Tom Club comprised of the leftover members of the Talking Heads.  That night they were playing their own New Year’s show at the Warfield over in San Francisco.  But there we were, in the Oakland Coliseum, waiting for something to happen.  There was some warm up band that I can’t remember.  They left.  Then the lights went down.  More folks walked on stage and picked up there instruments.  It was none other than the Tom-Tom Club.  And they began to play.

That was Bill Graham.

So floaty floaty we’ve been the last few days.  If you asked me what exactly we did after the massages, I’d be hard pressed to tell you.  Give it up to the wind and water.

Except for one more thing.  Remember the pig boat to Moloka’i?  Well when we didn’t get on it, we had to call Anna’s friend on the other island and tell her we weren’t coming.

No worries, she said.  She would just get on a plane and come here.  Soon, very soon, the wind and water will carry me (and by extension you) into her story.

Stay tuned.  It’s a good one.


Day Two Maui in 4 Stories


Today’s rout includes stories about running, smart phones, strongmen, and choices.  And also about the screwed up way that we roll when we travel.

The facts?  Severely non-interesting.  We ran in the morning.  We bought some fruit.  We read on the beach at Ka’anapali.  We floated in the water.  We drove south and checked into a hotel in Kihei and switched rooms once and hotels once.  I walked in the dark to Wailea.

We had a few conversations with other people.  But I had at least four thoughts.

1.  Andy’s Philosophy of Running.  When you run, you’re mapping your body to the landscape. My favorite kind of running is just running around: – the kind where you don’t know where you’re going and you go down that path until it intersects with this path and then you follow a trail to just see where it goes and sometimes you double back around and find yourself in some totally unexpected place.

It’s exploration by running.  In the process you feel the air of the place.  You feel the different and ever changing texture of the volcanic and coral ground.  And spiderwebs in the face.  And the sounds and fragrances and cast of light that are unique to every place and each sliver of the day.

It’s a great way to get around.

2. Seeking.  A few weeks ago Mazie wanted to get rid of her smartphone.  I keep looking at it, she said, expecting to find something inside that’s never there.

It’s as true a statement as any.  We have wedded ourselves to a device of wanting, one that leaves us perpetually leaving the moment and physical space that we presently inhabit to go find something somewhere else.  I believe the Device has reinforced us as a nation of dissatisfied seekers.  At every moment we have the somatic experience of wanting to fill “dead space” by peering into an object for something that is not there.

At the same time, we enter the Device because we want to be anchored in certainty.  We look at the Map app to know exactly where we are.  We go to Yelp to make sure we go to a good restaurant.  In an idle moment we tap on Google News and scan the headlines so we know exactly what may be happening elsewhere in the world  at that moment.

Yet the more we outsource our native intelligence to a smart device, how more dumb do we as individuals become?

So here’s the embarrassing confession. On this trip we’ve tried (and sadly it does take trying) to disengage from the devices. In any given moment, rather than turning to the device for the answer, we’ve had to turn back to the world and back to people.   That’s where a lot of the conversations have come from.

Sadly, the feeling is strangely revelatory.  And even more strangely, this was how we would move through the world as recently as a decade ago.  It changes everything.

I used to pride myself on my sense of geography and direction.  And in the brief span of the Device Era, I’ve all but lost it.  So over the last few days when we drive and we haven’t known where we are, we’ve had to look around and think about it for a moment and let the landscape tell us.  Or we just go and hope to get to where we’re going.  Or we ask someone for directions and listen closely to the landmarks they mention because those are the keys to finding your way around.  I begin to feel like myself again.

We ask people on the sidewalk where they would get a good cup of coffee.  Random people on the street tell us where to run or to find the best poke.  We look for signs and pieces of paper.  I’m craving paper.  Paper newspaper.  Paper maps.  Paper paper.  Something that feels material and textured.

There’s still MapMyRun (I do it because the maps are kind of totems and when I run around randomly it’s nice to know how far I’ve gone.)  And there’s the Facebook (a lot of times I feel like just some guy floating out there and FB provides a feeling of connectedness).  But even these things it may be soon time to ditch.

3.  The Benevolent Strongman.  This is not a non-sequitur!  Rather it’s exactly the sort of thing one can think about while lying on a beach in Hawai’i.

The man in the White House and Bill Graham are/were strongmen.  Why, I wonder, do I detest one and have an abiding love and appreciation for the other?  Strongmen are usually damaged souls.  Bill Graham certainly was – as damaged as any soul that has ever been.

It’s one of my favorite stories that I never mind retelling.  So for those who don’t know:

Wolfgang Grajonca was born in Berlin in 1931 during the restoration of the Reich.
When his father died shortly after, his mother kept him and his five siblings alive by selling fake flowers and costume jewelry in Berlin markets.
In 1938, the year of Kristalnacht, his mother placed him and his sister Tolia in a children’s home to save them.
His mother and remaining siblings would later be gassed on the way to Auschwitz.  He would never see them again.
At the onset of the war, Wolfgang and the other orphans would be evacuated to France.
In 1941, when Paris fell to the Germans, the International Red Cross escorted 64 children on foot and by bus to Lyons.  Wolfgang’s baby sister Tolia became sick with pneumonia and was left behind in an infirmary.  Grajonca would never see her again.
The 10 year old boy then walked to Marseilles and from there he was carried to Madrid.  And Lisbon.  And Casablanca. And Dakar.  He was placed on a boat to America and survived on cookies and oranges.  When he arrived in New York Harbor on September 24th, 1941, he weighed 55 lbs.  Of the original 64 children evacuated from the orphanage, only 11 would arrive in America.
Those refugee orphans were taken to Army barracks in upstate New York.  One by one the eleven children were adopted by families who were paid 48 dollars a month to take Jewish children.  There Wolfgang waited for nine weeks.  He was the very last child to be taken.

And I’m fairly sure that somewhere in that time, deep in the core of that little boy, that is when he decided that no one.  Absolutely no one.  Would ever.  Ever.  Fuck with him again.

That’s when he became Bill Graham.

I believe he understood people in a fundamentally profound way.  He knew that, after a Dead show let’s say, when you have a whole lot of people not in their right mind, that all those people needed somewhere safe to go.  So in this case, he set it up so that no one would have to leave – they could all stay camped out in the parking lot for as long as they needed.  But (and this is important) he also understood that in order to have the parking lot, you also needed rules.  And for rules to work, you also need an enforcer.  And if you operate in a world of the vain glorious and narcissistic and among those who lust for power (which was the world of rock ‘n roll) – you needed someone who was willing to fight back and fight back hard and was not afraid to leave bodies and hurt feelings in his wake.  He didn’t care.  I believe he was fundamentally driven by a misanthropic view of humanity.  Yet (and this is where he may differ from the other guy), I believe he genuinely cared for other people – he longed deeply in a way that he could perhaps not articulate for something righteous and good. “This.  is. Your. Fucking.  Job,” I imagine him saying.  “Do. Your.  Job.”

Once at a New Year’s show, my brother-in-law Vaughan was standing on the floor and looked over to see Graham standing right there beside him.  “Yo man,” someone asked.  “What are you doing here?”

Graham shrugged.  “I wanted to be down here with the the freaks,” he said.

In a sense, Graham was a kind of Holden Caufield:  the wounded soul who struggled angrily – sad and valiant – to catch the innocent as they tumbled into that field of rye.

4.  Where You’re At.  Anna got up at 2 am the other night so she could finish up a boatload of work before the close of the weekend.  She sat there at a wooden table in an old Lahaina hotel while the drunken loudly caroused home in the street below.  “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing where you’re at,” I reminded her.  “As long as you’re where you’re at.”  Which is another way to say that it doesn’t matter if you’re in front of a computer screen at two in the morning if that computer screen is on a wooden desk in a delightful old room in Hawai’i.

And with that said, yesterday afternoon we checked  into the Maui Coast in Kihei.

What we had imagined:  Anna’s conference was in Wailea. No rooms available.  But whatever.  We’ll be in Maui.  We’ll stay in Kihei and each morning we could ride bikes to Wailea and what delightful mornings those will be.   When we arrive they have no rooms readied, but no prob, we say they can take their time.  We are absolutely fine.  Mary the reservation lady, visibly relieved, suggests that we check out the strip malls down the street.

My heart begins to sink.

We ask about the bikes.  Turns out we have limited use.  Wailea is four miles away uphill.  And we can’t use the bikes past 6:30.   My heart sinks further.  But a room becomes available.  Second floor.  The window basically looks out at wall.

We head back to the front desk.  This time Manny the super nice supervisor greets us.  “Any chance we could have a different room?”  we ask guiltily.  Everyone is so terribly nice.  We are totally willing to wait.  Manny punches the keyboard.  “Complimentary upgrade.” he says.  Now we find ourselves on the top floor in a suite.  Big soaking tub.  Windows looking out over the mild sprawl of Kihei. Anna takes the car keys and heads off to the conference in Wailea.

I lay down on the bed.  I flip through one of those weird vacation activity guides. I stare up at the ceiling.  And that’s when I realize that this is exactly the kind of room where a person kills himself.

Feeling my lease on life growing rapidly shorter, I head downstairs and start walking toward Wailea.  I walk past the strip malls.  I cut over to the beach and walk on the sand as the sun sets.  The beach runs out and I pop up a trail and walk cliffside in front of a line of condos, vacationers outside grilling on the barbecues.  In the growing darkness I trudge through a park past a lone bagpiper playing an aching ode to the crashing waves of the Pacific.  I walk and I walk and I walk through the darkness.  Now on a grassy shoulder I cross over to a sidewalk.  The road curves up into what appears to be a posh neighborhood.  I take a narrow street that deadends and then a concrete staircase down to a beach, hardly a couple feet of sand gently pounded by the black surf as the night tide comes up.  I continue walking along the white liminal sand and then through water and then rocks and over driftwood until there is beach no longer.  Just me and the surf.  I detect a narrow sand trail that cuts up through some undergrowth and I follow that maybe 20 feet and there on those narrow trail in the darkness I see a naked body lying in the sand blocking the whole trail – and I mean a Sumo wrestler size body just lying there – and in a split second I think, ‘okay.  This is either a) some dude who’s probably sleeping and I need to carefully step over and around him and risk some kooky altercation, or b) he’s dead.’  And either way, even just in the process of finding out, I got a problem on my hands.

So I wind back down the pitch trail and back into the inky surf and along the night shore and the rocks and the driftwood trees until I find luminescent beach again and then back onto the road and into the posh neighborhood.

The phone rings.  It’s Anna.  “Where you at,” she asks.   “I’m on a grass island by the side of the road,” I tell her.  I sit down on the grass, but it smells faintly of sewage and gray water.  I stand.  “Never mind,” I tell her.  Come find me, I’ll be walking on the road to Wailea.”  I walk on up a long hill through the darkness beneath a line of towering and twisting banyon trees and eventually a car pulls up slowly beside me and I climb in and find myself sitting beside Anna.

“I don’t think we can stay in that hotel,” I tell her.

“I was thinking the exact same thing,” she says.

It’s nine at night and we drive on to Wailea and up to a Marriott Residence Inn within true walking distance of the conference and we talk with Kody the super nice desk clerk.  He can set us up.  It’ll cost us an extra few hundred bucks for the week.   Anna and I get a beer and go sit in the darkness by the blue glow of the pool to sort it all out.

We take some time to do our figuring (It seems she and I spend a lot of time figuring). We agree.  The Coast is a perfectly nice hotel.  And we can drive into Wailea each morning together.  And I can hang at the whatever whatever resort in whatever lounge chair and write.  What difference, really, does it make where we lay our head at night?

Well, there was something vaguely soul destroying about Kihei.

We don’t need posh.  But we want to be some place.  And unfortunately these days too many rooms and too many spots feel like no place.  Perhaps it was an absence of greenery or an abundance of stoplights.  Or the pizza hut on the corner.  Or roads and distances best trafficked by auto.  Or the inclination of the light.  Who knows?

But some differences do make a difference.

“If we decide to move,” I ask Anna, “Is that a good choice?”

“It’s absolutely a good choice,” she answers.

40 Years of Film in Telluride

IMG_2951Tuesday morning, things are wrapping up, the crowds heading home.  And the Telluride Film Festival, now in it’s fortieth year, still stands as the reigning queen of festivals.  After five days of immersion in films and conversations and ideas, your head spins and you feel the need for some time to process.

The Festival is unjuried (no prizes given), is not a market festival (no sales or seeking distribution), the content unannounced (people come in from around the world not knowing what will be served up until the first day), no paparazzi or red carpet (this is about the craft and the story with a bit of buzz, so real conversation between filmmakers is possible), has a tradition of sneaking films (they don’t list some items in the program, allowing them to show films freshly canistered and scoop Venice and Toronto, showcasing movies before they’ve officially premiered) contains a healthy dose of film hauled from the vaults (you come here to see stuff you will never have a chance to see anywhere else), and it’s in Telluride (everything within a gondola ride or a couple block walk).

All this makes for Telluride to be a movie love fest.

What are these things we call films?  At one point I found myself lying on the floor of the Sheridan Opera House, surrounded by images and ephemera from the last forty years.  I listened to Werner Herzog’s solemn intonation and Andre Gregory expounding.  I overheard another person explain how she’s been visiting for a few years and TFF feels so intense and even emotionally transformative that she can’t stop coming.  It’s not so much a film festival as a body of people immersing themselves in collective dreams, then surfacing and recounting their experience.

TFF was once known for it’s informality and rough edges. This began as a festival about movies and about the love and communication between people.  As guest director last year, Alice Waters curated the Fanny Trilogy by Marcel Pagnol – the stories that long ago inspired her to start Chez Panisse, creating a space that would become a vessel for food and pleasure and love shared.  This year she was honored during a screening of a documentary about Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food.  Through her cooking and her involvement over four decades, Waters has been instrumental in growing and nurturing the Telluride gathering.  In the Sheridan Opera House on Saturday morning, she described the Festival as an international family reunion in which the artists and creators whom we love most gather each year to revel in each other’s company.  The festival counts as one of her many homes.

And It’s no wonder that many pass holders return year after year.

Back in the day, films projected in the quonset hut community center would be drowned out by rain pelting against the tin roof.  And in 1984 the rough informality allowed for a baseball game between team Paris,Texas and team Stranger than Paradise  in which Wim Wenders caught a flyball in the outfield and then left the game so he could go out on top.

Here viewers are willing to receive images in the purest, most trusting way.  And owing to the outstanding programming of the festival directors along with their collective willingness to take risk, the Telluride films have had a streak of Oscar runs (Slumdog Millionaire, The Kings Speech, The Descendents).  And Telluride has also had it’s share of delightful bombs.  Which is wonderful. The last thing we want to do is discourage people from taking risk.  Only in risk can a new world be created.

We don’t know the ultimate effect of Telluride’s market making power.  This year, the Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne, and JC Chandor pulled their films from Toronto so they could premiere at Telluride.  The buzz on Nebraska overshadowed the Silver Medallion Tribute to the Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof.  (Manuscripts don’t Burn).  But the spirit is still there.

Let’s hope that the crew out of Berkeley and the town itself will succeed in remembering who they are and from whence they come, and will continue to honor the power of the moving image.


Perfect Telluride Film Fest Moment

Riding my pink townie down Colorado Ave at ten at night. I hear Spanish, I see the glint of celluloid, and right then catch the tail end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid playing outdoors at the Abel Gance in Elks Park. Paul Newman and Robert Redford pinned down in a Bolivian plaza, they stand and bolt out, frozen in time, guns blazing.

I cruise down the darkened street and roll right past the former of site of the San Miguel Bank. On June 24, 1889, a young Butch Cassidy walked into the building with his two partners in crime. That morning he robbed his very first bank.

A fine place to honor this years honoree.

Butch End

Birds of Chicago


Allison Russell
What? I don’t know. Depends on how many beers I’ve had.

I’ve found some new heroes in the last few weeks. Allison Russell and her husband count among them. Picture some southern rock piling into the car, slamming it north, sideswiping the Carolina Chocolate Drops, taking a whif of Austin, picking up some funk along the way and then flooring it all the way to Chicago to have a hot date with Aretha Franklin. All the while with a cheek to cheek grin on their face.

Birds of Chicago is a great small band that played in Paonia town park last week. It’s worth it to take a night to go see them if they’re passing through. Allison is expecting come December, after which they hit the road again with mother in law in tow as babysitter.

These guys are all love.  And if you hear them, as well you.

Because You Have To

The Song SchoolIs why you do it. It’s that simple.

Last day of Song School talking with Beth Desombre. Sylph like, her voice is as delicate and precise as her guitar fingering. I’d heard her play the night before and realized that I had no memory of the song nor what it had even sounded like.  But what I did recall was the shadow of the feeling, that it was gentle and honest, as if she might be the sort of person you would want to turn toward when the airplane encounters turbulence and feel grateful to be embraced by her presence.

That’s kind of what the Planet Bluegrass Song School is all about. Not about being great or even good (although there’s plenty of that), but about finding that voice that is uniquely yours and giving expression to it.

These are people who are old and retired, or middled aged and struggling to make their way through day jobs, or some so young that they don’t know yet what a day job is. But what they have in common is a compulsion to give voice to something inside them. Sometimes it’s highly polished, or whimsical, or rough and unformed, but in all cases it remains unique to each person. That’s an Ali Handall Song. Or that one there can be none other than Will Pfrang. They’re trying to perfect their written and sung voices so they most accurately express that thing within.

We’re all humans. And we’re all uneven. But once you can accept that and get beyond the judging, things get interesting. Lots of great performers, all small. Most don’t have youtube hit counts over a hundred, but that’s hardly a measure of what they pulled off on stage a last week.

Each night on stage we were treated to the rare gift of watching a human being come into his or her own.  It’s that moment when you’re not paying attention and suddenly you can’t help but notice that up front something incredible is unfolding. And like the mariner fixing you with his glittering eye, you have no choice but to listen.

A round up of just a few that I remember:

Rhonda Mouser: Rhonda is maybe the reason why you go to Alamosa. Most of you will never in your lives have a chance to hear her sing Cecile. It’s not on Youtube. She has tried to record it but it just comes out flat. But what happened a few nights ago was nothing short of electric. By her own admission, she’s a performer and not a studio musician. Which perhaps is all the better. If you want Rhonda Mouser you have to find her. And what you may get will start out naive and unadorned in a Jonathan Richman sort of way, and then it veers left into the darkness of minor chords and swoops into elegiac longing, and then, if you’re lucky, it begins to soar. Try Feel the Ground or No Rain from Live at Milagros.

Will Pfrang: My daughter and I walked into town for a cup of coffee and ran into this tow head kid walking in the opposite direction. One hour and 31 minutes later we were heading back and crossed paths with the same kid in the exact same spot. And that simple coincidence of geography might speak to who he is. My daughter wondered if he was actually Mother Theresa. He’s finishing high school in Port Washington, Wisconsin and trying to figure out what he wants to do. Who knows. But as for who he is? His self seems to float almost immaterially on stage, trusting the world as might an innocent and exuding something: love, grace, gratitude – who knows what, you just know that you want to be around it.

Liza Beth Oliveto. In her role as the other half of Ten Dollar Pony, she lends a drop of nitro  to the music. As for her own songs, she still struggles with her identity as a songwriter. When in life is it too late? And what if it never is? And how do you know? I sat under a tent and listened to her play Beth DeSombre’s guitar. In that moment I could only wish that more people were present. Look for her and her songwriting partner in Carson City or Reno.

Christine Lodder. Picture this  17 year old girl still emergent, leaning over the keyboard and doing what she could to keep her body from twisting into a pretzel as she released herself and bent into the song. She’ll be leaving Salt Lake City this autumn for the Berklee School of Music.

Bethel Steele. A tough name to fill, but that night on stage Bethel’s person managed to do it. Again out of Massachussetts, you sense this woman wouldn’t hesitate to protect you from the schoolyard bullies. And she probably could out sing most of them to boot.  Try Whiskey.

Bella Betts:  Boulder may one day claim her as their own. Just a notch above her twelfth birthday, she’s been playing mandolin since she was six and only recently began writing her own songs. She strikes you as a permanent resident in the idylls and energy of youth. Not one to walk, she’s more prone to skip and run as she bounds around about the Planet Bluegrass Ranch. And she’s one of those rare kids who also feels like she’s a hundred. Listen to her if you’ve perhaps forgotten what it means to be thoughtful, or curious and young.

Bella Hudson: Mazie and I first saw her playing on a street corner in Telluride about three years ago.  Just turned 13, she knows how to own a stage and is able to sing a handful of years beyond that.  She’s recording her first album this fall in Nashville.

The Church of St. Mary Gauthier

mary-gauthier-07She’s definitely a Mary.  And she may one day qualify as a saint.

I heard more than a couple Song School participants refer to Mary Gauthier’s workshops as the Church of St. Mary.  She delivered fire with just a touch of brimstone.

Her basic word was simple:  you’re not here to cut a record.  Nor to get famous.  You’re here to give expression to the spirit that flows through the universe and ultimately through you.

That’s why you do it.  Because you have to.  Because this thing needs voice through your songs.  And you need to trust it.  And so it doesn’t matter if you spend your life banished to the wilderness so long as you follow the path that is your calling.

So go forth and listen close. And, as with the venerable St. Francis, deliver your song to whomever chances to listen.

Black Madonna

Mary the chaliceMazie’s at Song School in Lyons, Colorado. I’m working at the Stone Cup as a sandy blond lady adjusts the paintings hanging beside me. It turns out it’s Sally White King, the artist. I tell her that I like her bear pictures. Also how she decapitated the female heads in her portraits of the Mother and Child.

Her eyes light up. It’s an important detail. It’s because she’s the Black Madonna, Sally says. You see them all over Europe, but we don’t know who she was. The Black Madonna gave birth to the Holy Daughter. The Black Madonna was Mary Magdalene, she explains quietly. She was Christ’s true Bride.

When the morning starts with something like that, it’s time to close up shop. You basically have gotten enough for the day.

Black_Madonna - appleThere are over 400 Black Madonnas (or Black Virgins) throughout Europe, some dating back to the twelfth century. Aside from the black coloring, some of them have two things in common.

The Madonna holds an egg or an apple (both representing either fertility, worldly knowledge, or sexual corruption). And plaited red hair or vestments.

madonna 1   black madonna   black-madonna-75  black-madonna1-8280

We may never know the true story of the historical Mary of Magdala, the anointed companion of Christ. She most likely was not a prostitute (the New Testament scripture does not clearly support this), but no matter. For much of the 2000 year Christian narrative (and officially since Pope Gregory in the year 591), poor Mary has been identified as a harlot, the fallen one allied with wayward women.

The belief left behind a two thousand year long trail of religious images and iconography.

magdalene-in-a-caveMary of the curling hair, identifying her as an adulteress.  Mary being cast into the wilderness.



mary magdalena - alabasterPenitent Mary casting her eyes toward heaven, bearing the pure vessel, the Alabaster Jar.




Mary-Wüger_KreuzigungMary, her red hair flowing down her back, kneeling at the foot of the Cross. Mary present as Christ is laid within the tomb.




TheRisenChristAppearingtoSt.MaryMagdaleneBut these images also suggest another Mary, that of St. Mary Magdalene, the one who proclaimed to the world that Christ had Risen.This Mary lies prostrate before the empty tomb. This Mary heralds the birth of Christianity itself, becoming the Apostle to the Apostles.

St. Mary Magdalene is also the patron saint of penitents and perfumers,or to put it another way, the guardian of the fallen and those who anoint in anticipation of sex.

Mary-Magdalene - AlluringThis Mary is alluring.




She contemplates and is illumined by the burning flame of god.

Magdalen_with_the_Smoking_Flame_c1640_Georges_de_La_Tour Mary_Magdalene_by_angelboi_red

Merle_Hugues_Mary_magdalene_in_the_cave_ooc-largeThis is the Mary of the Cave, more voluptuous and sexual than repentant. Her flowing red hair suggests the flow of blood.


Mary magdalena w eggThis Mary is the one cloaked in red. She is the one to present the red egg to Caesar. This Mary gives Word (or birth) to the resurrected Christ.




But we sometimes use metaphor to give greater dimension to the literal.

mary - the brideWhat if Mary was confidant and companion to Christ in the fullest sense? What if this laying in and exiting of the tomb was of a different, more carnal sort?



black madonna - birth

In this narrative, Mary as the Black Madonna is not so much the temptress, but the actual bride of Christ, and in this narrative, she bears his child.




black virginMary of Magdala carries within her the blood of Christ on the eve of his death. Mary is the Chalice. She is the generative vessel. That’s why Sally sliced the heads in half.

The Black Madonna is the Holy Grail itself.


And that’s why Arthur and his knights (and later Terry Gilliam and his band of buffoons, swallows and coconuts aside) were never able to find the damn thing.

The Chalice was in fact the feminine counterpart to Christ (and the sexual drive) that had been surgically expurgated from the religion. Sex had been cloaked in the blackness of sin. And if the procreative impulse is made unholy, where does that leave us?

It gets even weirder. In the Middle Ages, to protect their daughters’ virtue from marauding soldier or to pawn off the spinster daughter, they would pack them off to nunneries. With the true Bride of Christ now gone, these young acolytes would seal themselves to the Son of God by taking vows of chastity. The sexual impulse would become sublimated and would in turn find expression only through religious ecstasy. The nuns would at times feel within their wombs the fire of Christ.

But what if we were to once again acknowledge the Black Maria, no longer painted black, but as the woman who perfumed and bathed the feet of the Lord and gave issue to the Fruit of Heaven? Hinduism, Paganism, Zoroastrianism, Puebloan and Mesoamerican cosmology to name a few, all make room for the procreative force. By making christ a celibate, we neuter a fundamental aspect of the human experience. Perhaps that’s why many of the firefights in contemporary christianity have to do with sexuality.

Who’s to say which narratives should be designated as apocrypha, and which canon? And as we evolve, will other narratives become more resonant?

Oh and by the way. Tom Wait’s Black Mariah? It’s slang for a paddy wagon hauling away the condemned. And also, perhaps most beautifully, the nickname given to a black tarpaulin shack built by Thomas Edison in Orange, New Jersey.

That misshapen building? It was the first Movie Studio in America.

Or, you might say, the womb of our contemporary imagination and desire.

St. Vrain

Saint Francis Saint Veranus What if it’s not real? my daughter asks. I mean, what if none of that Jesus stuff happened and two thousand years of religion was based on it?  What a total complete waste of energy.  All the churches and wars and books and songs and stuff might be based on something that never existed. Just think of the amount of time people have spent on this stuff, she said.


The St. Vrain Creek running through Lyons, Colorado is not directly named, as one might suppose, for Saint Veranus di Camillon, but instead for Ceran de Hault de Lassus de St. Vrain, a child born of French nobility in St. Louis in 1802, who later decamped to the American West in the 1830’s to establish himself in the fur trade. To distinguish himself from his brother, he appended the St. Vrain.  He was responsible in part for the collapse of the Western beaver populations by 1842. He later helped crush the Taos uprising after the native Puebloans and Mexicans defending themselves against the invading Americans killed and scalped his trading partner, William Bent.  The volunteers serving under St. Vrain killed more than 150 rebel Taoans and Mexicans.  St. Vrain later served as a translator for the rigged military tribunal.  Deliberating for only a few minutes, the angry mob commended fifteen more souls to death.

Taos uprisingThe Taoans originally followed the intricate Puebloan ceremonial cycle, but later subsumed their beliefs to Catholicism after the Reconquest in 1692.  In that year, Diego de Varga retook the Southwest and subjected the natives once again to Spanish rule and the dominion of the Franciscans.

Which leads to a greater irony.  In April 1847, a man of French descent who carried the name of Saint Veranus, a 6th century French bishop known for his charity, bore witness against 15 Mexicans and Taoan rebels who were then hung for treason.  Fifteen men who had allied themselves to the will of St. Francis – patron saint of animals, the environment, Italy, merchants, stowaways, and the Cub Scouts – fell to the will and untoward legacy of St. Veranus, the patron saint of nothing in particular.

An even greater tragedy is that you couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s enough to make you believe in God. And what a fellow he is.


Song Birds

ImageHer card describes Kristen Hein Strohm as a Wildlife Biologist and Statistician and is illustrated with a songbird (the species of which I do not know) and a warble of lambda equations and binary sets of numbers.

Last night Kristen (with her husband Steve in accompaniment) warbled something far different than lambda equations. Sweet and lilting, her voice strayed between a whisper and song. It was quiet and full in a way not dissimilar from her manner of speaking.

I bumped into her this morning as she was making her way toward coffee, her skirt stitched with swatches of fabric outlining an owl basking in the moon.

In addition to her fieldwork, Kristen also leads workshops in teaching people how to observe wildlife. Once you know what to look for, you don’t need many more tools. So much depends simply on abandoning preconceptions and investing the time to make the observations.

Kristen’s expertise begs a pet question: Did other species of birds express the same social complexity as the corvids?

It doesn’t take much to get a trained wildlife biologist going so fast that you can’t keep up with her.

The corvids are incredibly complicated, she says. They have intricate language and distinct vocalizations. She went on to describe how many species have song patterns that sound identical and repetitive to us. If you examine a spectrograph, however, you can see that these songs are chocked with microtones that are undetectable to our ears, but signal a range of meanings and references to the song birds themselves. Despite our manifold abilities, we perceive only a limited range of sound, essentially moving through the world with mufflers on. She goes on to explain how certain species of hawks hunt cooperatively and that each hawk is trained to fill a specific role: chasing, banking, cornering, going in for the kill, which they fulfill every time.

All the while as she talks, Kristen parses her sentences with the sweet chipper of bird songs, as if she herself was some hybrid genetically engineered species.

But not all birds communicate with songs, she says, and she talks about the condors, the carrion vultures that don’t have much vocal expression (at least that we presently know about), but instead demonstrate rich and complex gestural displays. As they reintroduce the condors to the wild, they bring in wild condors to tutor the young in the complex code of visual signals. The mentor condors teach the fledgelings a language that is particular to that set of birds. When at last reintroduced, the young have been known to seek out the training condors. When found, they repeat the gestures that they have been taught, including what amounts to a spread winged bow, as if expressing a kind of abeyance to the creature that taught them to be wild.

So much for coffee. Proof, perhaps, that we are, in fact, at the Planet Bluegrass Song School.

From the Other Side


Last night, Mazie hovered in the dark in a squatted campsite and pulled eerie sounds out of her violin. Her companion was Mark Risius, he crouched on the ground, his guitar illuminated by a headlamp. These two musicians had just met and had unpacked their gear right there in the pitch where they happened to be. They didn’t know no notes, they didn’t know no theory. Right then it was about giving voice to that strange sound busting inside them.

Mark is a full instrument.  He’s classically trained and knows his stuff.  But for now imagine a guy tooled up with a can opener, three rubber bands, an old apple box and a saw. But imagine that all these things are in fact a guitar. He sets it on his lap and plays percussive on the body and the frets doubled capoed as if he’s trying to pull as many different kinds of sound out of the box and let it be a channel for his ADD or autism, I don’t know which.

He plays with his whole body as if palpating the sound itself. You can actually see it.  Something writhes inside  him as if it’s trying to come through from the other side and it senses his body as a portal. He picks up his guitar, and then Bam! This thing – part physical, part sexual, part something else – bursts out and is loosed free upon this world.

Marks an interesting guy. And for a lot of reasons. Clinicians might call it ADD. But it might also be remaining present with whatever is directly in front of you at that moment.

I bump into Mark again this morning – he’s on his way to class because, well, class really is the most important thing. But now we’re together and we’re talking about their jam session and now our conversation becomes the most important thing. We talk about Tangle Eye. We talk about Tom Waits doing a slap down to Mick Jagger in the Oakland Coliseum because that also is the most important thing.

Stay tuned.  Mark, I sense, is a live wire, an antenna to the world, and in his thoughts and receptive hands, invisible currents will soon be made apparent.


tangle eyeMy prayer to the Lord? If this is the last thing I ever write, then least let it be written.

I stand in front of the coffee urn at the shed in the middle of the meadow. A drummer out of New York wanted to play some tracks for us on his iPad. Hangmen, just slacken up your line, quavers the ancient voice of Almeda Riddle. But in addition, a heavy beat and groove has been layered on top of it.

The song is part of a recording project by the name of Tangle Eye. Produced by Steve Reynolds and Scott Billington of Rounder records, the album attempts to resurrect a handful of the songs recorded by folk music historian and archivist Alan Lomax in 1959.

How strange and powerful.

Almeda Riddle of Cleburne County, Arkansas, issues that song as a plaintive plea and as a prayer and a hope. It’s what we all want every day. Just one more day, Lord. Hangman, just loosen up your rope.

But unlike for many of us, for this old woman, in a way that was chillingly beyond perhaps her greatest imagining, her prayer was answered. The woman? Long gone  she is. But her being, her self – her voice – the very core of herself, has been resurrected. She pleads to her Maker, and her Maker has answered in turn and has reinstated her in a contemporary dance groove.

Here the day is just warming in the high country outside Rocky Mountain National Park. The morning light has just hit the red rock. A songwriter from Denver, a drummer out of Brooklyn, myself – we all huddle around an iPad on a dawning moment in the 21st century. Hangman, just slacken your line, she pleads again to us.

It’s so clear now. The afterlife?

It’s simply a remix. And the texture? Why, it looks and sounds like us.

Changing Shirts

ImageMazie is off to class and I’m off to work at the office. The day has warmed so I stop at the car for a change of clothing.

What do I wear? What do I want to present out to the world today? I rummage through my suitcase. Today, I decide, is the day to wear my colors. I don my maroon and yellow Hopi Day School t-shirt (Proud to be a Hawk!) and am ready now for what the day will bring.

I need not wait long.

300 feet later I’m exiting the campground into town. Zack, the entrance attendant calls out to me. Blond hair. Young and shaggy. Hey! Where’d you get that shirt, he shouts.

Hopi, I say.

You were at Hopi?

Eight years, I say.

You lived at Hopi, he asks incredulously. He steps forward and seizes me in his arms.

My grandmother, he says. She’s Suzanne Page.

She’s your grandmother? Now it’s my turn to be incredulous.

And Jake’s my grandfather. They live here in Lyons. Give me your number, he says.  You have to meet them.

There’s so much we have to talk about, I say.

I didn’t know that today would be the day. But I’ve been awaiting this moment for a long, long time.

Learning to Stand

Colorado SkyThe first thing she learned as a three year old violinist was how to bow. From that first gesture all things commence.

For most of yesterday, I holed up in the Stone Cup coffee house excepting a break to go back to camp and eat lunch with Mazie and listen to her sing a song she had written that morning about her song writing partner. In turn, her partner was supposed to write a song based on stories Mazie had told her. I asked her what she had talked about and Mazie wouldn’t tell because she “didn’t like me and didn’t want to share her stories.” Which is what, I think, this time is all about. After sharing lunch, she lamented that she wanted to connect with some other people, but didn’t quite know how to do it. I listened and made some feeble suggestions and then she was off, making as many tracks away from me as she could.

There’s the doing. And then there’s the allowing. The doing is the driving and periodic suggesting and the working and the paying for. And the allowing is the stepping back and letting her discover the person she is meant to be. Both, in their own ways, will go unrecognized. This morning after walking away, i caught sight of her writing in her songbook in the tent. And all yesterday and this morning she recognized people from Telluride and parts known and unknown. And I realized that our daughter was finally stepping out on her own.

We need to help her stand independently. But the sentiment immediately collapses in on itself. How do you help someone be independent?   We have to not help.  Instead we need to walk away.

So for the week, I’m her on call mule. If she needs an assist, I’m there for her.  But she knows what she needs to do.  And where she needs to go.  And it’s time to go.  And it will mostly be without either of her parents.  And, by definition, the very best parts of it neither of us will be there to witness.

Late on our first evening, she asked me what I wanted to do. After the long drive,  all I wanted was to pop some benadryl and go off to bed.  I told her as much.  But if there’s something else you want to do, I said, I’ll do it.  Well maybe I’ll just go to bed, she whispered. But then she hesitated, turned, walked over to a circle of musicians and pulled up a chair.  I followed. They asked if she wanted to play and she took the guitar and played a Patti Griffith song. She then left and returned with her violin.

A fellow asked if she could accompany him on a song . What would she like? he asked.

Something slow, she said.

And what key?

It doesn’t matter, she said. The fellow started to play, and within half a bar Mazie had  raised the violin to her chin. And then she fell in and let her instrument sing in a sweet and aching way. He sang and turned to her and the violin carried on, bearing the song in new directions and then back around so that he could carry it again. And like that they travelled for quite a while.  Folks sat, intrigued it seemed, and strangely moved.

How long have you been playing with your dad, another musician asked as they finished.

He’s not my dad, Mazie announced. I’ve never seen this girl before in my life, the song writer said.