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.

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.

Say Yes

You know that bucket list fantasy you might have, that one day you’ll get up on a stage in New York, let’s say, and sing with Sweet Honey in the Rock?

It kind of happened this morning. 150 songwriters and musicians sat groggy and expectant as Dr. Ysaye Barnwell just off from nearly a quarter century with the Rock, ambled up and took a seat in all her massive self.

From the moment she presents herself, you can’t help but think that this is what a fully actualized person must look and feel like: passionate, brave, mindfully scolding, patient, of brilliant intellect, and even greater heart.

You all get in a circle, she orders. We need to be in a circle for this. Two deep, bass to the left, sopranos on the far right. No matter the circle was three deep, and who knows if people were sitting in the right place.

As musicians you all only need to know how to count to four, she declares. Sometimes six. But we’re going to count to eight. It goes like this: one, one two one, one two, three, two, one, she sings. And so on. We’re going up to eight. With that she launches.

Man, you guys sound terrible, she announces when we conclude in something slightly more than a disorganized jumble. Again, she says, but this time instead of singing the number four, I want all of you to clap. And off she leads us. And then again, this time in round and then faster. Succeeding or failing at this exercise ceases to have meaning.

Which leads to the second lesson. Why are we here? Why is Mazie here at a weeklong song workshop in the Rockies? Why are any of us here?

Dr. Barnwell has us sing a quodlibet which, she explains, has two meanings. The first is a legal argument of which she knows little about. The second is a song in which different melodies (and even different lyrics) are sung in counterpoint to one another.

My soul is anchored in the Lord, sings one group.

Lord, I done done, sings another.

And through it all Dr. Barnwell begins to weave us together with her own voice.

Her three octave range seems to stretch out as she pitches notes to the highest soprano and then back down to whatever the basses can muster. Within minutes she has 150 people singing in different keys, different lyrics in round that merges into a a tidal chorus.

Lord. I done done. Lord I done done. Lord I done done what you told me to do.

If only we all could say that.

Say yes, Barnwell counsels. Don’t matter what it is. Just say yes. You may not know what they’re asking you to do, and you may not think you know how to do it. But don’t worry. You all will figure it out.