Thursday, April 28, 2016

Great Musicians Gone


   Musicians, artists, writers and historical/political figures have always been important to me. That makes sense-I am a musician myself, I am moved and inspired by all types of art and writing, and I have been both a teacher of history and politics and somewhat involved in them throughout my life. Those things have always mattered to me, and they are a part of my deepest memories. I can tell you about seeing Howlin' Wolf ride a golf cart onstage at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Fest or seeing Ornette Coleman playing in his loft on Prince Street in New York City or how and why E.D. Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson are the unsung heroes of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and a lot more. So when one of the artists, musicians, writers or historical figures I admire dies, it saddens me. But it also makes me freshly aware of them all over again, and I am able to relive some of what they did and what they meat to me. It happens every now and then; I have come to look at it is one of the benefits of being older. I get a chance to reflect one earlier times and revisit and relive things that were important to me. Most often these people are not widely known; a select niche of fans or admirers are aware of them, but the general population is not. Every now and then, though, we go through a rare time period where a number of widely known important and somewhat connected folks die in a short period of time. And the whole world takes notice. In 2013, for example we lost writer Chinua Achebe, activist and politician Nelson Mandela, and  writer Oscar Hijuelos. We also lost great musicians such as George Jones, Richie Havens and Lou Reed. And that same thing has  happened in this first quarter of 2016. Three unique and distinct musical greats have perished, and the world took note.

   David Bowie, Merle Haggard and Prince were all iconic and unique musicians and performers. They each had long and varied careers; careers which took several different turns, crossed over into film, and had ups and downs. They were each talented songwriters whose repertoire mixed an array of genres and feels together with their own quirky takes on lyric writing, and they each touched me in myriad ways. Bowie, born David Jones, grew up captured by the sounds and styles of Elvis and Chuck Berry. Blues was his first love, but later he got into dancing, folk, mime, psychedelia, science fiction and the idea of music as presentation. And he drew all of those together into his musical personas. He went from androgyny to glam to studied cool and more as each album told stories about space travel, paranoia, fantastic characters and more. He then went on to revolutionize the rock stage show with his Ziggy Stardust presentations and then dove into hard rock, soul and even disco. And in each genre he found something new and unique to emphasize whether it was unique double guitar lines, strong and unusual rhythms, or clever uses of studio effects. Ziggy Stardust was the first of his albums that captured me, and I was taken by the way he combined so many musical styles into a given song. I was also taken by the cleverness and creativity of his storytelling lyrics. The work he did in the late 70's and 80's has influenced rock and will for years to come. From musical style to stage presence to style to artwork to persona, his influence is everywhere.

   Merle Haggard first came into my consciousness with his "Okie from Muskogee" which criticized Vietnam War protestors. As I was one of the protestors, that song did not go over so well with me. I was just getting into old time country at that time, though, and as I explored that genre I kept coming across these hard edged story songs and ballads featuring "make you cry" pedal steel guitar, stinging guitar fills and direct heartfelt vocals that were so different from what was coming out of Nashville at the time. A lot of those songs were by that Okie from Muskogie guy-Merle Haggard. I loved the Bakersfield sound that he and Lefty Frizzell helped develop and the earlier Texas swing style of Bob Willis that he also played. I loved the way he was singing straight direct songs with simple but clever lyrics, great arrangements and strong simple harmonies. He became a favorite, and I am glad that my ears got wide enough to take in more styes of music.

   Like Bowie and Haggard, Prince was unique and totally himself. He played 20 some instruments and had a solid grasp of a multitude of styles and genres: rock, soul funk, pop, and more. I first heard his 1980 album Dirty Mind, and I was impressed with the way he meshed soul, new wave, hard core funk and straight out pop. His music captured me from the start. I was not totally comfortable with the lyrics, and not because the were sexual.; I tend to like the more subtle double entendre of blues a bit more. But the music had me dancing, and that was something Prince never failed to do. He could make silly songs danceable, and when he combined his amazing layering of tones and rhythms with great lyrics as on "Kiss, the result was unbelievable. He produced an astounding number of great singles and albums: Little Red Corvette, Raspberry Beret, 1999, When Doves Cry, Let's Go Crazy, and of course, Purple Rain. He also appeared with numerous artists in collaborations and even gave songs to Sinead O'Connor, Kenny Rogers (!!!), Sheena Easton, Paula Abdul and more. An iconic artist who changed his name, recorded hundreds of songs that have yet to be released, formed and re-formed bands, appeared in several guises and was one of the most private public people, his influence was widespread and his death touched everyone. And while Niagara Falls being lit purple was really for Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday, it was fitting that it happened when Prince died.  It's as if the universe had a sly wink, and Prince would have loved that. And so would Merle and David.

     To hear some of my favorites by each artist:


Monday, April 18, 2016

Spring In the Garden

“In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.”  
    The goldfinches came back last week, and there was real joy in the Colgan-Davis household. This is, I think, the earliest the goldfinches have been at our feeders, and it was both surprising and wonderful to see them. I watched them zip across from tree to feeder, then to one of the bird baths where they sat for a while, had a drink and then went up into a the tree and then over the backyard fence. The goldfinches were back. 
    The Eastern Swallow Tailed butterflies are back also. I saw one as I was walking along Bryan Street this morning, and it flittered and fluttered from a neighbor’s bushes across my path and off down the street. It took me a couple of seconds to process what I was seeing-it seems a week or two early for them as well. But it was the swallowtail, and the sitting and eating in the backyard season would now be officially open.
   My wife is a great gardener, and one of the joys of our house in Mt. Airy is sitting in back of the house and reading and eating. Yes, just being out in the air is wonderful, but there is the added joy of the design and plantings of flowers and shrubs to attracts birds and butterflies. We have several feeders for the birds, three places for them to bathe and drink, and a variety of plants and shrubs that over the years have helped draw a variety of butterflies, small perching birds, woodpeckers, mourning doves and more. This has been a huge part of our time here and It brings great peace and joy. Often we just sit in the quiet watching the birds and butterflies and marveling. As twilight comes we get the wonderful interplay of light and darkness and animal activity that makes being outside so wonderful. It is almost like camping in the city. But it took time to get it to this place, and it takes time still. There was clearing out some of what was growing there when we moved in, trying to choose what plants would grow in our area, experimenting with different combinations of and locations for different plants, going to various workshops on planting a bird and butterfly garden, and always trying to come up with new ways to fight those damn squirrels. The big decision was removing an old garage from the property and painstakingly extending the garden another third of a block. My wife did the planning and design, my son and I supplied the muscle, some landscapers supplied some of the skills, and the wonderful space we now have gradually took shape. It took time, work, effort, faith and a lot of love.
   As those of you who maintain and plant gardens know, that work is both part of the endless joy of having a garden and part of the, well, work of having a garden. Like most things of value and importance it takes regular effort, some hard work, and doses of hope and faith to enable a garden to get through one year and into the next. It also often takes pruning and/or getting rid of something that is no longer working and re-evaluating what is still there to maintain and/or improve the true beauty of the landscape. Spring can be a good reminder that we probably need to do a little of that careful tending in other areas of our lives as well as in our gardens. A little timely pruning, the occasional re-planting, and some re-imagining has been known to work wonders on more than the ground. Renewal and rebirth can be about more than just what is in the ground. I will think about that as I drink in and enjoy the glories of another spring.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Poetry and the Library

                      Poetry and the Library

    Americans love observances. We have special days and months to celebrate everything from the divine to the historical to the esoteric to the downright silly. There is Black History Month, Women's History Month, Take Sons and Daughters to Work Day, Senior Citizens Day, Tartan Day, Wear Red Day, Pretzel Day, Apple Day, and too many religious holidays and observances to mention. In fact, the word holiday itself is derived from “holy day’-days set aside by various religions for special rituals and practices. And due to our wonderful diversity, the United States is simply awash in special days and times.

     April is among my favorite months for these special times because April is National Poetry Month, and it also features National Librarians Day and National Library Week. These three observances recognize things that have been and are very important and wondrous to me; words, knowledge, curiosity,creativity, and helpfulness. Together these have all played a vital role in my life and in me becoming the person I am. I am grateful that these three things have been a part of my life for quite a while.

     I do not know exactly how I got into poetry. Yes, there were all the rhymes we used to say as kids and the poems we had to memorize in elementary school. But I think that reading “Childcraft’, the literary and educational set of books my mother got for us that went along with the World Book Encyclopedia, was where poetry really settled into me. “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes with its magical and evocative, “The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas”, and its rhythmic and exciting, “The Highwayman came ridin’; the highway man came ridin’; up to the old inn door” just caught me. I remember lines from that poem today, over a half century later. That set of books also had memorable poems by Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that sometimes sent me to the dictionary to find out what some of the words meant, thus enlarging my vocabulary and furthering my sense of wonder at all the things words could mean and do. I am still fascinated by the uses, subtleties, meanings and origins of words. And I trace it back to those early experiences.

     I am also a child of the 60’s, and in the energy of the Civil Rights Movement I discovered the works of earlier Black poets such as Langston Hughes, Fenton Johnson, and Gwendolyn Brooks and new ones such as Le Roi Jones, Lucille Clifton, and Ishmael Reed. Through that I saw how poems could touch on both the eternal and metaphorical as well as the here and now. It was also a time of great cultural change in the whole of US society, and the anthology, The New American Poetry and friends of mine such as Steve A. and Dave F. introduced me to great wordsmiths such as William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, and my all time favorite poet, Kenneth Patchen. Popular songs by artists such as Bob Dylan and Smokey Robinson and Simon and Garfunkel has similes and metaphors and allusions. Poetic works were all around, and my love for poetry was fed and took off. Even now I browse books of poetry in book stores and subscribe to the Poetry Foundation’s daily e-mail service. ( Poetry Foundation ) It is a life long love story that will only end when I do.

     Librarians helped with that and so much more in my life. When I had read a poem that interested me, I could ask a librarian where I could find more works by that poet or by poets who wrote in the same way. And I had the same experience whether I was researching a historical question, looking for something about music, following up some odd weird idea, looking for how to copyright a song, or any of the thousands of things I asked librarians about over the years. Libraries and librarians have always been there for me, willing and able to help. Libraries themselves have been so many things to me; places to gain refuge from the outside world, a source to unlock new knowledge, a place to answer questions and feed my insatiable curiosity, or in the case of some of the turn of the 20th century ones, places to go to be amazed at the architecture. It still amazes me that we have public free libraries and have had them for such a long time. I used to do some classes on US law and life for foreign students and professionals. Some of them were from developing or recently independent countries, and the openness and ease of access of our libraries was one thing that always intrigued and amazed them. Public schools have them. Just about every neighborhood has them. Colleges and universities have them. And they are open to anyone at all. That was definitely not their experience, and they marveled at it.

   I got my first library card to take home and hold onto when I was in second grade. I have had one ever since then; over half a century. The 3 public libraries in West Philadelphia were places where I spent tons of time regularly, and then as I got older the main library at 19th and the Parkway became a haven. I could find books on things I was curious about and take them home with me-for free! I could listen to music I could not afford to buy repeatedly. For free! I could ask for help with a vexing research question or process and receive one on one help. For free! It is both wondrous and ordinary; we rarely think about how special it actually is. I was a high school and middle school teacher for almost 40 years, and I always had the good fortune to work with excellent librarians. I have long said to my students that if there is a heaven, I may not get in, but librarians are automatically guaranteed entrance. They go through all of that college training and professional development work, not for themselves, but just so they can help other people. Repeatedly. And for free. Wow. That is simply incredible.

    Libraries are in tough financial times now. School districts, cities, and towns have been cutting funding for them even as the needs for the many services they provide have been increasing. I encourage people to donate whatever they can to their local public library; they are an indispensable part of the intellectual infrastructure of this country, and they represent us at our best. Think about all of the students, perhaps even you, who learned to do research, finished a school project and/or had their curiosity sparked by a librarian or at a library. Think of all of the immigrants who learned and are learning about being in this country through library programs over the decades. Think of all the parents for whom libraries are safe and free after school programs. April is a great time to remember what libraries and librarians do for all of us and focus on what we can do for them. National Library Week, April 10-16, and National Library Worker’s day, April 12, offer us a chance to reflect on the vital role these workers and these institutions play. As the historian Barbara Tuckman said, “Nothing saddens me more than the closed and locked door of a library.”  That is so true. (To see a great film about what libraries do on any given day go to