Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Happy Solstice

Heading into the night of the winter solstice, every spiritual tradition has some kind of festival of light. We're all just whistling in the dark, hoping against hope that someone up there will see these little candles and get the hint.” Lawrence Kushner
I am extremely fortunate to be living live in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Living here I get to see each season for approximately an equal amount of time each year, and that is a delight. I love all of the seasons, both the seasons themselves and the transitions that lead up to them. People in this region get to fully experience the arrival of each season, see it develop over time, and then see and feel it fully emerge. And we get to delight in the simultaneous ending of one season and the slow deliberate arrival of the next. I think of all of this as the "endless cycle of the universe," and it has been here and continuing since time before time. I love this cycle, in part, because it links us to all the humans who have been here long before us and will be here long after us. And it links us all to the earth.
Humans have always noted, marked, responded to, and ritualized each of the aspects of this cycle. In all parts of the world we have created symbols, activities, images, music and more to show our deep dependence on and connections to this cycle, whether it has been about pure physical survival, deep emotional fear or hope, reverential worship, and/or deep spiritual love. Doing this is one of the things that seems to make us human; we can’t live in this world without doing it. And I love the coming of winter because it is one of those times when this connection between the cycle and our human need for ritual is so obvious. In all parts of the world the approach of winter is marked by big changes in climate and environment, and we respond. It either starts raining more or snowing. Fog may be more prevalent. Temperatures start to drop, trees, plants and crops go through noticeable changes, and the length of days-the amount of sunlight- changes. This hits a climax at the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the day after, when the days start getting longer. Whether in the Northern Hemisphere, when the winter solstice is in December, or in the Southern Hemisphere, when it is in June, humans have met these changes repeatedly with organized group activities-rituals. There were songs, stories, dances, symbols, and especially fire and light. In the Scandinavian countries Juul feasts involved bringing a Juul log (Yule log) into the house and burning it in the hearth to honor of the god of thunder, Thor and to acknowledge a new beginning. The ashes were kept in the house or on one’s person as a sign of the belief in the rebirth of the world and hope for a better and safer new year. In ancient Rome the solstice was met by Saturnalia, a feast dedicated to Saturn, the father of the gods. It involved a reversal of social order, symbolic fertility gifts of fruits and dolls, and candles. It was the birth-rebirth of the sun and the gods, and things were in chaos for a while until proper order was returned in the days following the solstice. In the Southern Hemisphere descendants of the Inca had the tradition Inti Ramya, a festival welcoming the New Year and involving, among other things, animal sacrifice and the origin story of the Inca. Shab-E-Yalda celebrated the triumph of Mithra the sun god in Iran, parts of Turkey and parts of Afghanistan. Gatherings featured poetry, song, bonfires and wishes/prayers to protect the community from darkness and from evil in the coming year. In all of these traditions there is both a mystical connection to light and some form of symbolic rebirth. These are universal themes of our solstice observances, for we seem to need to meet the winter darkness with light and hope.
The Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa celebrations with which we are familiar are likewise about light and rebirth. Like all rituals they have symbolic meanings for just about every phase of the observance. The lighting of the menorah candles in Hanukkah, for example, recall the miracle of the oil that lasted 8 days during the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It is also a rebirth story for both the Temple and for the religion, as it honors the fact that the Jews were able to withstand the attempt by Antiochus to destroy their religion. The story of the Star of Bethlehem in the Christmas story is also about light and rebirth, as Christians believe the story represents the birth of a new “light” for the world. It is also the first part of a longer story of re-birth that culminates with Easter. And the lights on Christmas trees and the date of December 25th show what happens when various cultures come together and their beliefs, symbols and rituals intermingle. They get re-interpreted and take on new meanings. Likewise, Kwanzaa with its candle,s affirms a reverence for the rebirth of links between people of African descent and the continent of Africa. It is intended to represent the birth of a new awareness of African origins; the daily candle lighting, similar to Hanukkah, represent a re-dedication to communal African values. So even if we may not be aware of it, all of these celebrations affirm our continual links to that cycle of the earth and our deep connections to humans from earlier times and places. We may think of ourselves as more “modern” or “advanced” than our ancestors, but scratch the surface of so much of what we do, and the links between them and us are there.
So however you observe the reality of the solstice, know that by doing so you are joining with thousands of years of human history to acknowledge our connection to and reverence for the cycle. It is one of the things it means to be a human animal; one of the things that mark us as different from other living things. Do have a wonderful season of contemplation joy, re-dedication, gift giving and good food. And do stop every now and then to notice the beauty and power of the lights against the darkness. For we are still working to meet the darkness with light.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Inrcedble Disappearing Thanksgiving Holiday

 I love Thanksgiving. It has long been one of my favorite holidays stretching back to when I was a little kid. It was a holiday I loved probably even more than Christmas. There ware a couple of reasons for this: as a kid Thanksgiving meant time off from school; although I liked school, a two-day holiday in the middle of the week was great. Thanksgiving also meant gathering together and eating lots of great food. And everyone was involved in getting the meal ready and setting the table. Often you were with people who were normally at your dinner table, and that could make for fun and/or interesting arguments. And most notably, on Thanksgiving you did not nave to buy gifts. It wasn’t required or expected. So Thanksgiving had all of the wonders of a big deal holiday and few of the drawbacks. I loved it. And as I grew older this idea of everyone pausing their regular lives and gathering together to express some sort of “gratitude” came to mean more and more to me. Thanksgiving gradually became an important way for me to look at the world and my role in it.

  Recently it seems as if Thanksgiving is having a hard time of it in our culture, at least in our most visible media and popular culture. Over the last few years I have seen it become well nigh invisible in commercials, TV references, and even on the little bits of social media I observe. Each year it seems we have Halloween and then jump over Thanksgiving to get to the December holidays, and more importantly, buying things. Christmas sales and specials started appearing this year BEFORE Halloween. Black Friday sales have gotten tons of mentions already, but the day before Black Friday-the day we supposedly express our sincere gratitude for all that we have-hardly draws a mention anymore. I guess there is not a lot of money to be made on it in comparison to the winter holidays; restaurants, grocery stores and bakeries remind you to get your orders in on time, but that is about it. To the culture at large it doesn’t mean as much as it once did. While we definitely still recognize it, our culture doesn’t spend much public (and billable) time talking about it anymore. That saddens me, and not just because it is one of my favorite holidays.

  It saddens me because downplaying this day seems to me to be downplaying some part of our basic humanity. Thanksgiving is one of the most uniquely human occurrences in our lives; it is one of those holidays that may well mark us as a different type of life form on this earth. As far as we know, dogs, protozoa, trees, beetles and other living tings do not develop long lasting group rituals to express this thing we call, “gratitude.” Humans do. And we have been doing it all over the planet and at all different times and in tons of different ways forever. Expressing thanks is one of the most universal of things we humans do, and it is something that people from all faith traditions, and even from no faith traditions at all, do and have done virtually forever. It has been observed by every culture, by every ethnic group, in every time period, and just about everywhere on the planet. It is an important part of what makes us “us.”

   This idea of expressing gratitude is something humans have done since prehistory. The return of wild herbs and plants for the pre-agricultural migrating societies; the running of the fish again in the rivers and streams; the return of birds and eggs and animals to trap and to hunt; the seasonal changes in weather and climate; all of these would have been things our hunting and gathering ancestors hoped and prayed for, and they would have found ways to give “thanks” for them when they occurred. There was a definite perceived link between what humans did and whether of not these resources returned, so group rituals were developed to try to give humans a better chance of influencing the odds. Then when agriculture developed, this process reached new levels of intensity. Yes, agriculture meant humans could stay in one place, but that stability of place required humans to do a hell of a lot of hard work. Gathering and planting of seeds, building shelter, defending territory, watering and nurturing the crops, fighting the weather, harvesting crops-these and more factors of agricultural life were all things that demanded a huge amount of labor, a lot of working together, and plenty of luck or divine help. And things still might not work. So the rituals of giving thanks became an important and necessary part of spring planting and fall harvest festivals all over the world and still are. Although in our modern civilized world many of us are far removed from the actual work that goes into sustaining a civilization, our societies today are still resting on and dependent upon that same infrastructure. No, it doesn’t take as many people to do it, and much of the work can seem invisible. But if we look closely we see that it is still there and still necessary. And as we all know when a traffic light is out or our stove breaks or our computer acts up, even with all of this technological “advancement” we still need luck and maybe some divine help.

  So I want to take time to acknowledge that simple act of expressing gratitude-of acknowledging that we all need other people and more than just ourselves to make our way through this world and this life. We need others’ help and assistance. And every now and then we have to formally acknowledge that. The human in us needs to stop and say, “Thanks” to some spirit or some ones or some things outside of and/or beyond ourselves. Otherwise we may misread our place in the world and think we did all of this by ourselves.  So in addition to the great food and the family reunions and the football games and the parades, I hope you have a happy, thoughtful, and grateful Thanksgiving. And if you can, please find a way to help some people who are a little less fortunate than you are.

   Philabudance: http://www.philabundance.org/

   Chester County Food Bank: http://chestercountyfoodbank.org/

   Mercer Street Friends Food Bank: http://www.mercerstreetfriends.org/

   Food Bank of Delaware: http://www.fbd.org/

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Two Trains Running...

“Well, there’s two, two  trains runnin’…)
In 1965 I was 15 and a student at Central High in Philadelphia. It was an important time for me: I was doing that teenage thing so many of us did then and maybe still do; trying to define myself. It was a conscious thing; I wanted to figure out who I was, what the world meant, and where I fit into the world.  I did a lot of that searching and discovering by what I chose to explore, experience, study and learn from. The people with whom I hung out, the books I read, the movies I watched, the political events I attended, and most especially, the music I listened to and experienced live were my major ways of trying to do that. A lot of those attempts were misguided, wasted and silly in retrospect, but they put me on a path of looking at connections, considering new ways of expression, thinking about how people and societies change, and exploring things that piqued my curiosity and caught my interest. In many ways those days and what was going on both within me and in the society all around me were, in addition to my mom, the most important factors in leading me to becoming the adult I am now. It was a time of a lot of changes and opportunity for me and for the country.
    I grew up in a house that had a parent who sold encyclopedias and valued schooling, so reading, writing, and learning about things were  always major parts of my life. In elementary school I started haunting libraries and reading always and everywhere, even while walking down the street (I still do that). Mom had records by Nat King Cole, The Ink Spots, and Johnny Mathis, and she would play them, particularly during the holidays. I did a lot of dishes at my house because the best radio in the house was in the kitchen. Motown and Stax record labels were my soul music staples, but in high school my ears got bigger. Late at night I could pick up AM stations from as far away as New York City and Buffalo, NY: that is where I first heard some of the sounds that were new and intriguing to me-down home blues, what came to be called rock, and different forms of jazz. FM radio was just starting to take off at this time, and there were new forms of music that was attracting attention. Folk music was big then. Hootenanny was on TV, and I both heard and watched the Weavers, Joan Baez,  the Kingston Trio, and Tom Rush. Rock and Roll music was now called “rock,” and it had started taking over the Top 40 and dominated FM. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, The Animals, the Byrds, and many more groups that played their own instruments became new food for me. I was scooping up huge chunks of all of this and at the same time reading: Allan Ginsberg, Hermann Hesse, James Baldwin, Gay Snyder, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and many, many more. Politically I was also active, taking part in Civil Rights marches and anti- Vietnam War marches. And I was just starting to play the harmonica. It was a heady sometimes overwheliming, and busy time for a teenager; arts, politics, and culture were all coming together for me in unexpected ways and with unexpected results.
 I've been thinking about  those years because I have recently been reminded of that time. I saw the film, Two Trains Running last week, and that film examines the intersections of race, music and politics in the mid 1960’s in a powerful way and unusual way. Ostensibly, Two Trains starts as a simple look at the attempt by two groups of white folk music fans to try to find legendary country blues musicians Skip James and Son House in 1964.Through interviews, narration and film about the folk music scene, animation, and some good storytelling we follow these teams on their quests, one from the West Coast and one from the East Coast. These searches mean they have to go into the South, and there they suddenly find themselves in the midst of  the drama, tension, hope, and danger connected to Jim Crow and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. They did not start trying to be involved in any of that at all, but events around them brought them suddenly face to face to some realities about the country, their own social attitudes, and things that came to define them and change their lives. With wonderful juxtapositioning by director Don Pollard we get to learn about the music, but we also see some of the events that led to many young whites to become involved in voter registration and Freedom Schools in the South, the events leading up to the brutal murder of 3 Civil Rights workers, and the results of the re-discovery of these 2 black musical legends. The coming together of these things had a huge impact on our culture in an indirect but very real way. Yes, James and House were found and went on to perform and record again- I got to see and meet both musicians at concerts put on by the Central High Folk Club, the Main Point, The 2nd Fret, and the University of Pennsylvania. But the results went way beyond the resurrection of their musical careers. Many white Americans were galvanized to explore and treasure blues music and to help raise its profile in US culture. More people also became supporters of and participants in the Civil Rights Movement as folk, rock and other new music brought Black performers in front of white audiences. (I first saw Howlin’ Wolf on the TV show, Shindig, where he was introduced by the Rolling Stones). Music in the form of gospel and folk helped sustain the Civil Rights Movement. Major changes started happening in the culture and politics of the country and music was a the heart of a lot of it. And little of it was foreseen or planned.
Two Trains Runnin’ is leaving Philadelphia, but I urge you to track down where it goes next. If you are around my age, it will remind you of the mid-60’s in a much more realistic and clear-headed way than most popular references to that time do. And if you are younger, it can help you appreciate the foundations of a lot of the music we take for granted now. It will also bring home how messy, dangerous and ongoing the struggle for social justice is and has to be, something we all need to be aware of in the current political climate. It brought back to me a clear memory of an important time in my life and in the larger life of our nation and culture. The two trains were runnin', and it turned out both were going my way.

Friday, September 8, 2017

O, Canada

O Canada!
   It is September, and long term Dukes’ newsletter readers know that means John will be writing about the latest Colgan-Davis trip to Ontario, and more specifically, to the Limestone City Blues Festival in Kingston. This trip has been a part of the Colgan-Davis travel itinerary for some 19 years now, stretching back to camping outside of Glens Falls, NY and my wife spotting an advertisement for the second Limestone City Blues Fest in a local paper. The ad mentioned the great harp player Charlie Musselwhite, so we were intrigued. We looked on the map and saw how close Kingston was, and off we went to spend a day and night in Kingston. Wow!  We were hooked! We loved the town-a lot of old buildings mixed with modern things, it’s right off a beautiful harbor on Lake Ontario,  it had great coffee shops and great restaurants, and it had a lot of independent bookstores and funky shops.  The Festival itself had Concerts in the Park from noon until 5PM, a big evening concert where we saw Charlie Musselwhite, and most of the local clubs had blues acts that you could see for free with a festival bracelet, which went for the exorbitant fee of $10 for the weekend. We decided after that one visit that every vacation would end with Kingston and Limestone. And with the exception of one time when the car broke down, and one summer when we went to New Mexico and Arizona, we have done precisely that for 19 years. The third week in August means Kingston and Limestone, and it has always been great fun with unique experiences, great music, and great food. 
This year the price for the bracelet jumped all the way to $15, still an amazing bargain. This year's festival also featured an all Canadian lineup, and I realized that a lot of the incredible musicians that I hear at Limestone I do not hear in the states. Canada has had a vibrant blues scene for a long time, but most of the artists at Limestone do not play the States much, or at least not the East Coast. They also rarely make it onto blues radio shows in the States, so many Americans are not familiar with them. Over the years I have seen some incredible acts, and I think many of them should be better known. So I thought that in honor of the many great hours of listening Limestone has given me, I would provide links to the work of four of my favorite Canadian blues artists-to their videos and their websites. These are folks whose music I listen to regularly and who bring me great joy. Yes, there are others, and if you are interested in them, just drop me a line and I will send you more links. But I thought that as an intro to the Canadian scene I would share my four favorites. I have to thank the Limestone City Blues Festival for introducing me to these acts.  I am so grateful Limestone gave me a chance to expand my ears.

Paul Reddick: I got to meet Paul Reddick the second year we were in Kingston. His band, the Sidemen, were playing in the Concert in the Park shows, and we struck up a conversation. I loved listening to the band sat in with him, and we have have been in touch ever since. He is a great singer, harp player and songwriter; he wrote PR’s Jubilee which the Dukes did on our third CD. He has recorded several moving and powerful CD’s since leaving The Sidemen, and he imagines the blues in new and exciting ways, looking it as both a literary as well as a musical form. He is both an original and a traditionalist, and he is one of my favorite musicians.

Dawn Tyler Watson: I first heard Dawn some 16 years ago as an opening act on a Friday night concert at Limestone, and she blew my mind. She had a powerful voice with incredible phrasing, and songs that mixed blues, gospel and jazz. Her band was outstanding-they could play anything they wanted. We heard them again this year, and the years have only added depth, gravitas and joy to her onstage presence. She has a great time playing, and it is impossible to not move your body listening to her. I love her!

Fathead: I love bands with horns, great instrumentalists and soulful singers. Fathead is such a band. A Toronto based band formed in the 1990’s they have been nominated for and won numerous Canadian blues awards, including male vocalist of the year for the late John Mays.  I love their subtle arrangements, both of traditional songs and on their own written material. Since John’s death from cancer two years ago they have broken up, but I still listen to their Building Full of Blues CD and smile a lot. Great band-I miss them!                                 
The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer: One of the most amazing and unusual groups that I have ever heard, The Harpoonist and The Axe Murderer are two Vancouver, British Colombians  who bring a great knowledge of blues history and stylings as well as a sly humor to creating great music.The band’s set up is traditional- guitar and harmonica. But the application and use of foot pedals, amp settings, electronic effects, and foot percussion produces a combination of sounds that are both primal blues and very original. They are fun, weird, somewhat provocative, and absolutely wonderful. Unusual but great!

   Those are my four favorite Canadian artists at this time, and I look forward to adding more to the list. I hope this list can lead you to discover some new tunes and musicians that bring you joy. Happy Listening!

Harvey Contributions Update:
   A few people wrote me last week to let me know that some of the links included in my last newsletter did not work. I checked and found that if I scrolled over the links, copied them and then put them into a browser or search engine they worked. Sorry about the problem. Please give what you can to any of the following groups: they will help for a long time.

Thank you so much for whatever you have been and are able to do to help people struggling, both with Harvey and in other ways as well.  No matter the situation, we all need other people's help to get along well in this world. Thanks!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Mid-Summer in the Mid-Atlantic

     I love living in the Mid-Atlantic region area in late July and early August. Yes, mid-summer can be and has been a time of hot and humid weather. That is not always comfortable for me; humidity, especially is not my thing. But it is also a time when so much of what got started by nature, home gardeners, and the region’s farmers a few months ago bursts forth in all its splendor and glory. Walking around Mt Airy, Germantown, and Chestnut Hill these days I notice that a wondrous variety of scents now fill the air. Front yards are awash in color as flowers have come fully alive, displaying their leaves and blooms in a dazzling array of shapes, sizes and tones. Window boxes and flower pots are likewise alive, sitting proudly and showing their stuff. And bees, butterflies, and other insects are buzzing, hopping and zooming about, doing their pollinator thing and flashing their colors as they zip about. Fireflies are dancing in the early evenings, adding mystery and wonder. Mornings and evenings are filled with the sights and sounds of dozens of different birds ranging from little tiny hummingbirds and wrens all the way up to majestic owls and soaring hawks. Grocery stores, produce markets and farmers markets are humming with people getting blue and blackberries, strawberries, peaches, cucumbers, fresh corn on the cob, and more. (I love summer fruits, and the peaches the last several years have been especially juicy and sweet.) This is a good time to be out and about, slowing down, and drinking in all the ways this time of the year entices all of our senses. It is quietly spectacular.

   I am fortunate to live in a place with enough land for plantings, both in back and alongside the house. I am also especially fortunate to live in that place with a wonderful gardener. There is a lot of work to be done in a garden, and she spends a great amount of time planting, weeding, deadheading, weeding again, pruning, composting, and trimming. And this is the time of the year when so much of that hard work is wonderfully rewarded. When we walk on one side of the house the sweet and luscious scents of fennel and daytora plants fill the air. A variety of colors also liven up that view of the property. We are also birders, so there are plants and feeders in the back garden to attract birds and butterflies. When we eat breakfast or dinner in the garden we regularly see a variety of white and yellow streak butterflies, Eastern Swallowtails, and the occasional Monarch. We also have sugar water feeders, suet feeders and sunflower seed feeders out, and we have water. So as we sit outside we are able to enjoy what we call, “The Show.” Sparrows, house finches, goldfinches, 2 types of woodpeckers, catbirds, chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals, robins, house wrens, mourning doves, hummingbirds, nuthatches and the occasional hawk all keep us amused, entertained and in wonder. We have also started harvesting and enjoying some of the fruits of the garden. We are eating some of the cilantro, cherry tomatoes, and rosemary that is growing in the back garden. Some of the plants have been cut and are in  vases in the kitchen and dining room, adding scents and color to those places. And reading, eating, and doing work on the computer outside is definitely a wonderful way of spending time.

  So I am enjoying yet another turn of the cycle. Another progression through the year and looking how humans, nature and the cycle itself do their thing, interact, and present me with so much joy, pleasure and wonder. It is small stuff; noting the birds, tasting the food, appreciating the colors, smelling the scents, and so on. It is not earth-shattering stuff at all. But as a wise cab driver once said to me some 20 years ago when I was taking a cab home from the Art Museum, “The secret to having a good life is to notice, appreciate, treasure and be grateful for the small things. Because most of life is small things; you aren’t rushing into a burning building every day and saving a baby. Most of any day is small stuff, and if you can learn to notice and enjoy that, then that means most of your days have been good ones.” He was right-the small stuff matters so much. I hope you get a chance to slow down, get our savor and enjoy. It is a glorious time to be alive.
(Here are some photos of the Colgan-Davis gardens: Colgan-Davis Garden)

John will be making a guest appearance at the  Rose Tree Park Summer Concert Series in Media, PA with Roger Girke and the Blues Social Club, an all-atar group featuring Bert Harris from Philly Gumbo on bass, Andy Haley , who has played with Eric Steckel, on drums, John on harp, and Delaware’s blues icon Roger Girke on guitar and vocals. Started some 42 years ago, this concert series is a great treat in the tri-state area, and I am happy to be a performer this year. The show begins at 7:30 PM. Bring the family, blankets, chairs and food (no alcohol) and come on out and enjoy one of the Delaware Valley’s gems. More information can be found at: Summer Festival - Delaware County