Tag Archives: Judy Collins

Hootenanny Wind

Hey!

You millennials!

Don’t trust anyone over 30.

That was the advice proffered by my generation in the sixties. That would be the 1960’s, though after a morning of pulling weeds, it feels like a hundred years before.

My friend, Jim Sherburne, wrote an interesting novel concerning that generational advice; RIVERS RUN TOGETHER. In it, he describes a 30-something writer in Chicago in the summer of 1968, during the Democratic presidential nominating convention. The protagonist’s heart was pining to be part of the protests happening behind police lines in the parks in Chicago, while his carbon-dated time on the planet consigned his bag-o-bones to the streets nearby. I recommend the book…especially now.

I’m over 30.

Dammit.

So…don’t trust me…but read this…it might help bridge the gap when next we meet.

In the early to mid-sixties, I was politically born.

On an August day (no school that day), Martin Luther King revealed his dream to the largest crowd I had ever seen, in Washington. It was on TV and I could not look away.

Earlier that year, a new music show had appeared on TV. It was called “Hootenanny” and it featured folk music.

That same year, radio station WBKY (now WUKY) had a late Saturday night show hosted by Ben Story featuring even more obscure folk music.

I was twelve.

What’s folk music?

Who’s Martin Luther King?

Why’s he black?

Does that mean something?

Is somebody doing something to him they shouldn’t?

What does Pete Seeger mean when he asks “Which side are you on?”

Sides? There are sides?

I was twelve.

Patrick Sky reached for a laugh in his now-forgotten classic “Talking Socialized Anti-Undertaker Blues”; “Formaldehyde and alcohol, we’ll pickle you, and that ain’t all; black or white, to us you’re all the same.” Where’s the laugh? It plumb evades me. What’s black or white got to do with it?

I was twelve. I had to look up “formaldehyde.”

Phil Ochs’ sad musician-turned-wino in “Chords of Fame” complains in an alley; “Reporters ask you questions. They write down what you say.” Why would they do that? Aren’t reporters supposed to be covering real news in 1963? The Cold War? Polio? Cuban missiles?

I was twelve and still eating sugar cubes and mastering the scary yoga of “duck and cover.”

Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger were asking “What did you learn in school today?”

Well… I really was taught things like;

“I learned that policemen are my friends
I learned that justice never ends
I learned that murderers die for their crimes
Even if we make a mistake sometimes.”

I was twelve. It had not yet occurred to me that might not be OK until Tom and Pete suggested I cipher on that a little more.

I listened as Judy Henske and Judy Collins and Joan Tolliver sang about the problems in the coal fields using the words of Billy Edd Wheeler. Mountains being stripped, towns abandoned, rivers poisoned? In Lexington, we didn’t have rivers or mountains.

But Mr. Wheeler’s words have stayed with me for over five decades.

All their words have. I learned much from these foreign-to-me teachers.

Mostly what I learned from these singers and preachers and yes, my Sunday school teachers was to always do the next right thing. Picking sides, recognizing colors and genders, knocking down mountains, fighting diseases, corrupt authorities……….just do the next right thing.

Mortgages, and insurance bills, and utility bills, and 401K’s have distracted me.

Stormy Daniels, and the Ukraine, and Confederate flags, and face masks are thrown at me now to continue to distract me.

I learned better in 1963 and what I learned still holds true.

Stay focused on Rev. King’s dream.

It’s the next right thing to do.

Trust me on this……no…wait……don’t trust me…go vote……do this yourself.

High Flyin’

I would have been 13 or 14 years old when one day I heard this funny little song about outhouses on the radio. It was Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back.” It got a lot of play for a few weeks before local radio returned to its breathless documentation of the British Invasion. Whimsical fantasies about plumbing architecture trends in Appalachia didn’t stand a chance against the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark 5, and that other group.

But there was wisdom in the whimsy. Mr. Wheeler described the title facility;

 

Now, it was not a castle fair, but I could dream my future there,

And build my castles to the yellowjacket’s drone.

I could orbit ‘round the sun, fight with General Washington,

Or be a king upon a golden throne.

 

Life-changing?

Hardly.

But it stayed with me and suggested something I was just beginning to suspect; my imagination and a quiet place might be a powerful antidote to the random adult violence depicted by Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley.

The next year I heard the Kingston Trio deliver with typical Kingston Trio gusto the instructions of Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Desert Pete”;

 

You’ve got to prime the pump.

You must have faith and believe.

You’ve got to give of yourself

‘Fore you’re worthy to receive.

 

A simple thought; one I had learned in Sunday school and Cub Scouts, but now had outgrown in my teenage cynicism. I was so much older then…

It wasn’t until I heard Judy Collins on her concert album talk about Wheeler and sing three of his songs that his songs became important to me.

Ms. Collins sang his elegant description of a “Red-Wing Blackbird”;

 

O can you hear that pretty little bird singin’ with all his heart and soul?

He’s got a blood-red spot on his wing, and all of the rest of ‘im’s black as coal.

 

That’s my bird now.

It belongs to me and my part of the country.

I may not be happy about the sombre imagery (“When a man spills blood on the coal…”), but it belongs to my home state.

It’s my bird singin’.

Ms. Collins also sang his amazingly prescient “Coal Tattoo.”

 

Travelin’ down that coal town road; listen to my rubber tires whine.

Goodbye to buckeye and white sycamore. I’m leavin’ you behind.

I got no job and I got no pay – just got a worried soul,

And a blue tattoo on the side of my head left by the #9 coal.

 

This in the mid-60s’ and more true now.

A couple of years later, Wheeler anticipated the coal country environmental anxieties of the 21st century in his “Coming of the Roads”;

 

Look how they’ve cut all to pieces our ancient poplar and oak,

And the hillsides are stained with the greases, and they’ve burned up our heavens with smoke.

 

Is Mr. Wheeler the the Madame Cleo of the Smokies or have we not been paying attention? Perhaps a bit of both.

Grim stuff.

It gets grimmer.

Two of my favorite Wheeler songs speak of the longing to fly…but with a price.

In “High-Flyin’ Bird”;

 

There’s a high-flyin’ bird flying way up in the sky

And I wonder if she looks down on me as she goes on by?

Lord, look at me here. I’m rooted like a tree here.

Got those sit-down, can’t cry

Oh Lord, gonna die blues

 

And the song ends with specificity;

 

And the only way to fly is die.

 

He echoes this thought in “Winter Sky.”

 

Out under the winter sky

Out under the winter sky

Stars come tremblin’ on my eye.

Hand me wings for to fly.

And I feel like somethin’s gonna die.

I feel like somethin’s gonna die,

And me with it.

 

I wonder if once again Mr. Wheeler has accurately predicted, 50 years ago, a mind-set of today. In a geography of few opportunities, no jobs, education possibilities starved of funds, and little hope, how can you fly?

How?

In a geography of dwindling art experiences to spark dreaming of futures and castles and orbiting the sun, how can you even dream of flying?

How?

Well…………of course…………………………..there are pharmaceuticals.