Friday, June 17, 2022

The Importance of The Route 23



“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley...” 

My Long Love Affair with Route 23 

I am Philly born, Philly bred, and I love this city. Yes, it has its problems, as does every city and most places in the country. But I love the many neighborhoods of this city, its history and culture, and  the logical and clear way much of the city is laid out. It is easy to navigate, and that is a very good thing in a place with so many people. Public transit is a key to any city’s economic and social success, and Philly has had a good transit system for some time. It has been the key to my getting around and enjoying this place, and I am very grateful for it. I still depend on this system for much of my daily and regular activities. Several times a week I make use of the regional rail lines near me-The Chestnut Hill West and The Chestnut Hill East-to go into town. I also make use of the Route H bus a couple of times a week. And just about every day of every week I spend some time on the Route 23 bus. Going to the pharmacy, going up to Chesnut Hill for coffee or a meal, going to Germantown to the Regional Library, going grocery shopping; just about every day that route gets me somewhere I need to be or connects with some way of getting me to where I need to go. My life would be very different without the 23, and it has been that way for over 50 years. 

I went to a local public elementary school-I could walk the 6 blocks to and from Dunlap Elementary School easily. But I went to Masterman Junior High and Central High School, and attending those schools meant I had to become familiar with Philly’s public transit. I used the subway, the busses, the trolleys, and the elevated in junior high school, and I became rather adept at figuring out how to get to where I wanted to go. But it was high school that really increased my use and reliance on public transit and especially the 23. Central had students from all over the city. A lot of my friends lived in Mt. Airy, Germantown, Chestnut Hill, Center City, and Lower South Philly.  The 23 connected all of those parts of the city, and it also linked up with a number of bus routes, subway stops, and the Market Steet elevated. So I learned to use it to travel much of the city. After I left high school and started playing music, the 23 became an essential part of my music life. The Philadelphia folk and coffeehouse scene had exploded, the 23 helped me get to and experience a lot of it. I could get to the weekend coffeehouse on the 2nd floor of Diane Bryman's rug shop in Chestnut Hill, and I could travel to World Control Studios and Hecate Circle in Germantown. As it ran all night and travelled from Chestnut Hill to South Philly, I could take it from one spot in Chestnut Hill or Mt Airy or South Street, and hook up with buses that could take me back to my parents’ home in West Philly. After I moved out of my parent's home, it allowed me to get to and from my various apartments in West Philly, South Philly, or Center City. It was my reliable transport just about wherever I needed to go. 

The 23 was a long route. Traveling over 13 1/2 miles, it was once the longest streetcar route in the world. Being such a long route, it went through many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. So when I taught high school classes in urban studies, I made the 23 an important part of the curriculum. In the first week of the class, we would ride the 23 for at least half of its route. I would have the students count the number and types of churches, bars, hair salons, playgrounds, and schools we passed. They would also count the abandoned factories and shops we passed as a way of beginning to understand how cities grow and change economically. They would also write down each time they thought we were entering a different neighborhood and what indicated that to them. That long ride would form the backdrop for the first two weeks of the course, and it influenced just about everything else we did. 

I am thinking about all of this because while waiting at the 23-bus stop outside Lovett Library, I saw an announcement of something called “Along the 23.” Along the 23 is a collaborative art project that seeks to present and explore scenes from various people, activities, places, and neighborhoods along route 23. A lot has changed since I started riding the route; it is now a bus route, and its length has been shortened by about 1/3. But it is still the most used and the most diverse SEPTA route, and this arts program is designed to explore just that. Watching the various dance videos and seeing the artwork and photographs that are a part of the project made me remember all of the discoveries and realizations about my city that that route has allowed me to see and experience for over a half century. It connected me once again with important parts of my past and helped me consciously appreciate the role that something as ordinary as a public transit route has had and can still have on a person's life. The link to the “Along the 23 Project” is below. I hope you get to visit the project and think about the role transit and other seemingly ordinary things have had on your own life. For the ordinary is often what makes the extraordinary possible. At least that is how it has been with me and the 23. Enjoy  

Make Music Philly  

 Organized by the Make Music Alliance and Make Music Philly, Make Music Philly is a city-wide event that recognizes the solstice, and celebrates humanity and our unique ability to make music in many different forms and styles. It is an interactive event; you participate in it and don’t just view it. Check out the website ( ) There you can find listings of events to attend and participate in, whether it is singing with a barbershop quartet, being part of a drum circle, exploring a particular culture’s national music, or more. Check it out-get active and celebrate one of humankind's longest and most ancient traditions by making music, Philly, on the day of the solstice. 

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Music in The Out of Doors




   (I am still thinking about, reading about, listening to music from, and reveling in the memories of my time at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It was an absolutely wonderful weekend, and I am still aglow from it. In addition to the sheer power and beauty of the music I heard that weekend, I am also thinking about how good it felt to be outside in a group and at a real live in-person music festival. I had almost forgotten what that feels like. The Dukes did do the Chestnut Hill Fall for the Arts Fest last year, and that was wonderful. But this was the first Jazz and Heritage Fest in two years, and the collective joy of everyone in that huge crowd at finally being back at the Fest was palpable. To me, one of the true joys of late May into the summer has always been playing and hearing music outside in a festival format; it has been that way for me for years. So I went back and found a piece I had written several years ago about my love for the power of music played and enjoyed outside. Jazz Fest brought that back to me in a big way, so I updated the piece. ) 

  If you look at the schedules of many bands and groups of just about any genre for the next three months, you will see that there is a return to the days of summer concerts in local parks, festivals, and street and block parties. The Dukes will be playing The Narberth Arts and Music Festival on June 12 and The Falls Township and Kahn Park Summer Series on August 14th and 17th respectively. The Two Johns will be at Le Fete de La Musique on June 21st in West Chester. These are all outdoor gigs, and I love playing these gigs. One joy is that  the crowds and venues are bigger; more folks, generally means a good and excited audience. But I also love them because they put me back in touch with the types of gigs that first awakened me to the joy and power of playing music. As a young teen, watching the way live music outdoors could bring a crowd of people together produced a feeling of awe that has never quite gone away. And each summer I get a chance to re-live that. 

   I started playing in the late 1960’s, and those were the days of the “Be-Ins"-outdoor festivals of music, politics, and good spirited nuttiness that were held at Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park and in Powelton Village. There amidst the pot smoke, Frisbee throwing, and political organizing I heard Tracy Nelson’s Mother Earth and The Electric Flag and even played at a couple of them with Sweet Stavin’ Chain. It was all exhilarating. The joy and power of a group of people outdoors listening and dancing to the same music made quite an impression. I also attended several Philadelphia Folk Festivals, the longest continuously running outdoor music festival in the United States.  I went to my first one in 1966, and I got to see John Hurt, Tom Rush, Buddy Guy and Jr Wells, and more. I was amazed at how they could get hundreds of people-all ages and types of people- singing along, dancing, swaying back and forth in rhythm, and feeling like we were all one. There was a sense of joy and freedom and togetherness in those gatherings that I still cherish. 

   Then in 1969 I had one of the defining experiences of my musical life. I hitchhiked with a friend from Philadelphia all the way to Michigan for the first Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. While other friends of were making plans to go to some place a few weeks later called Woodstock, Bill and I made our way over the course of two days to Ann Arbor. There I had the amazing experience of seeing Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Roosevelt Sykes, Son House, Magic Sam, Yank Rachel, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Sleepy John Estes, T-Bone Walker, Mississippi Fred Mc Dowell, Big Mama Thornton, Jonny Shines, Charlie Musselwhite, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and more all over the course of one weekend with thousands of people. All in one weekend! Wow!  I was hooked on festivals and outdoor music from then on. 

   As I have aged and been playing for a while, I am, of course, aware of some of the difficulties of outdoor music. Guitars can have a harder time staying in tune, sound systems can be difficult, and every now and then crowds can  become unruly. Despite those things, I still love outdoor music events. I love looking out and seeing people spontaneously dancing and swaying together, just as they did at those folk festivals and Be-ins I attended so long ago. I love it when a whole group of people starts singing along and clapping together. And I especially love watching kids getting into it as they realize that music is something that real live human beings do-that it is made by folks who sweat, make mistakes, laugh, and can see and wave at them. I like to connect, if only for a moment, with young kids when playing these events; to smile at them and do some dance steps with them. Because for that moment nothing else in the world maters except the music and that shared feeling. That moment and that excitement. And just like that, I am a teenager again, feeling the pure joy and wonder of music outdoors with hundreds of people. It still feels great.    

So I hope you get to a lot of festivals and concerts in the great outdoors this summer and get to experience some of what I got to experience in New Orleans two weeks ago. Regardless of where and with whom, being at such events can be magical and transformative. I urge you to get out the house, away from the MP3 player and/or the stereo and the binge TV watching, and go catch some real live music. You and your spirit will definitely be glad you did.  

(Here is a link to a recording of the historic first Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969:  

Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Beauty of The Mundane



One of the things I love about walking around the city is that I can see many things that I would not notice were I in a car or on a bus. I can see neat little alleys, unique plant boxes, interesting doors, window displays, etc . These are often enjoyable things that bring a smile to my face or make me think. I also get to notice bumper stickers on cars, and I have seen some that have stayed with me for a while: “Love Your Neighbor: No Exceptions;” “Support Bacteria; They’re The Only Culture Some Folks Have;” “In Individuals Insanity is Rare. In parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” “Live Widely, Laugh Often, and Love Deeply.” Some are cute, some are funny, and some are inspirational. They can set me off in a direction I was unaware of until coming across them. A few days ago, I saw one that especially intrigued me: “Celebrate mundanity, and the mysterious delight embedded in the banal-Visit The Museum of Everyday Life.” 

This was something right up my alley. As a young kid growing up and now as senior citizen, I was and still am curious about ordinary things and their origins. I am not mechanically minded-I could never invent or design something mechanical to solve a problem. That was my brother. He was the one who built model planes and cars, studied how to repair cars and appliances, and who subsequently had an absolutely amazing 40 year + career as an electrical engineer, both with the School District of Philadelphia and in running his own business. But I have always been interested in how things work; seeing machines and devices and structures do the things they do mystifies and amazes me. To me, infrastructure is what allows societies and cultures to function as they do, and that infrastructure is mostly composed of things we rarely think about or marvel at. But soenone designed them, and these are the keys that make the lives we live possible. They are “the banal”-we don’t notice them unless they break down or are not working. Then they get noticed. So that bumper sticker caught my attention big time. 

Two of my favorite books are by Henry Petroski: The Pencil, and The Evolution of Ordinary Things. Yes; Petroski wrote a 400+ page book on that piece of wood and graphite. In doing so, he examined and asked and answered some incredible questions. How did the pencil start wars, and how did it help change European history?? Why did the American Society of Civil Engineers call the #2 pencil with an eraser attached the most important and most wonderfully designed item of the 20th century? Why was the donation of pencils so important to the recovery of European nations after WWI? It was a fascinating and revelatory book. 

In his second book Petroski examined some other important mechanical inventions and developments in ways that I had not thought about before: Where did the fork come from? Who do some forks have two tines, and others four? How do bridges stay up? Where did velcro come from? Petroski, a professor of engineering, looks at these things as elements of design and invention, but also as facets of cultural beliefs and values. It gave me a new, wider way to look at technological change and development. I believe that cultures and civilizations depend on infrastructure, and one part of infrastructure is often those things that we don’t pay attention to that often influence the way we live the most. So that bumper sticker was calling to a real important part of me, and I had to check out the website of The Museum of Everyday Things.  

I love museums, all types of museums. Yes, I love great and grand art museums and historical museums and science museums. But I also love the small and quirky specialty museum. One of the pleasures of the many trips and travels Penny and I did was discovering new museums: The American Visionary Art Museum and The Great Blacks in Wax museums in Baltimore; the various Smithsonian museums in DC; the small little Civilian Conservation Museum outside of Great Falls, NY; The Colored Girls Museum in Philadelphia; the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May, NJ, and many, many others. The Museum of Everyday Life is one of those smaller, specialty museums that I have come to especially love. It is in a barn-like building in Glover, VT and it is a self-service museum; apparently one can enter when it is open, browse the museum, and then leave, remembering to turn out the lights. I viewed the web version of some past exhibits, one on the match and one on knots. The one on the match looked at the history of the match, and I learned some things about how unsafe matches once were, how Britain was nearly paralyzed by a strike of the girls who made the matches, how the Diamond Match Company discovered a way to make matches that were safe, and then shared that process with other companies rather than filing for an exclusive patent. That was a lot about that one little piece of everyday life.  

The website also has performance spots tied to some of the exhibits, philosophical essays on some of the items on display, and links to some past exhibits, although not each page was working when I first clicked on it. I will visit it more over the next few days, and hopefully all the pages will be up and working. 

The Museum of Everyday Life is a delightful place to check out via the web, and I hope to be able to visit it in person some time when I am up in Vt.  And it reminded me that I had not visited some of my favorite museums on the web in quite some time. Those are trips I will be happily taking over the next few weeks, for museums almost always have things to teach me, show me, and introduce me to. Those can be joyous trips, indeed. 

The Museum of Everyday Life 

The American Visionary Art Musuem 

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Power and Magic of the Public Library