So there I was, disheveled, a day past unshaven and holding on to the bear. My head hurt. My brain hurt. My damn left shoulder hurt. In my younger days all that would have been the tells of a fine evening out. In my younger days.
It was July 4th, 2012. I would be on the airwaves in a few hours spinning music I wasn’t feeling good about. The show was sounding sarcastic or worse ironic, or worse funny, or worse not funny. It had been funny, really funny the night before. The cold light of dawn though has a way of tempering a man. So, there I sat, starring at a blank piece of legal paper contemplating the beginning of something I had already finished. There’s nothing quite like starting over from scratch while having no idea just where things were going to go.
I love my country and I love being an American. I don’t love how patriotism has been co-opted – and probably always has been by some band of nuts. I don’t love how groups march around declaring what it is and what it isn’t – the isn’t being anything disagreeable to their typically narrow viewpoint. This was how I was feeling and how a sarcastic 4th of July show almost comes into being. It’s not the country’s fault that it is peopled by more than a few douchbags though. I suppose the argument could even be made that far from being its fault, this is in part, why America is a great country. A place where squares can have a ball and even douchbags get their say.
In the midst of all this internal Hamleting my wife walks by and says “you’re going to play some Gershwin today, right?”
It was a clarifying moment. As the familiar melody of Rhapsody In Blue came into my head I remembered everything that was important about the 4th of July, Independence Day. A day this country ratified the idea that all people were equal and had rights to pursue life and liberty and happiness. It’s such a simple idea. And, so hard to get right. It seems like we’re trying though, most of us, some of us, enough of us over the years to get closer to that grand statement.
Gershwin was in. His great Rhapsody in Blue, a song written to the sound and rhythms of the rails. Everything else would splinter from that. Mary McCaslin’s lovely Last Cannonball with it’s western echoes and Sammi Smith’s heartbreaking and deeply soulful cover of Steve Goodman’s The City of New Orleans. Gregory Paul, a local singer and busker who haunts our public markets and gives people more than covers of Steve Miller classics, with his rendition of Little Black Train and Utah Phillips talking about what he knew far better than most of us do these days, and Elvis Presley singing Junior Parker’s Mystery Train, that weird other -worldly rocker driven – and I mean driven – by Scotty Moore and Bill Black. They never sounded so good.
It was easy after that. At least the guts were easy. There were road songs and surf songs to be played, songs about those mythical places of America: Georgia, California. And places where hickory winds blow and the Mississippi rolls.
Still, I needed the bookends. Rhapsody in Blue would be in the middle, the center. So, how to get there and from there where to go?
When all is said and done, when we are all finished writing about Bob Dylan, and that looks more and more likely never to be the case, Sean Wilentz’s “Bob Dylan in America” may reign supreme. It certainly does now. He would give me my starting place with his beginning chapter on Aaron Copland. Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man has always been something of a guilty pleasure. It’s like a hipster admitting he enjoys Pachelbel’s Cannon. Of course it’s not really like that at all. I just didn’t know any better.
A fanfare is a piece of music written for nobles and royalty and here was an American composer, a Brooklyn Jew born at the turn of last century, gay, and left enough to get himself blacklisted who had the audacity to write one for us (assuming no royalty or nobility read this blog). I dropped the needle on his fanfare and with the beginning of the Declaration of Independence running through my mind the beginning was in place.
The ending was to be Woody’s This Land is Your Land. It fit with Copland’s beginning. It made sense, it worked. It wasn’t the end though, it felt like almost the end. I had missed something. A little over a month ago a man randomly shot and killed a group of people here in Seattle. I was on air the day after and one of the songs I played was Cat Stevens’ Peace Train. He, like Copland, can be a guilty pleasure. That day though, he was tonic. And I sat there remembering playing that song by the man who now goes by Yusuf Islam and then I started to hum If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out and I knew I had my ending.
Happy belated 4th.
The show can be streamed here.
Oh, and it’s The Outskirts, so not the country stuff ya bunch o’ hillbillies.