Tuesday, June 10, 2014

American Sing-a-Long, Part 1

            Back a year ago, when be began planning for the Caravan of Wonder and for my discovery/rediscovery of America, I knew that music would be a significant part of it.  After all, we are driving tens of thousands of miles.  We can’t talk (or listen to each other) incessantly or sit in hushed wonder the entire time.  So one of my early projects was loading an Ipod with about six thousand songs.
The Ipod Provides the Soundtrack
            Admittedly part of the loading frenzy was a reaction to deciding, after forty-five years of accumulating, to downsize and sell my record album collection.  The good news is that we won’t have to deal with those boxes in a couple of months when we retire from the road and return home.  Still, I was grieving the loss of my 700-plus records, mostly music from the seventies but a certain amount from the sixties and eighties.  I also had a pretty good collection of classical music, and a respectable amount of jazz.   So last spring, I tried digitalizing my analog, but that was such a time consuming process that I abandoned it.  Instead I focused on downloading my CD’s (which I was keeping, but wisely not taking on the trip), and promised myself that I would purchase any old album I really wanted when I wanted it.  So through various means, I now have more than 6000 individual tracks on the old Ipod. 

           My criteria for selecting music was to bring together 1) a reasonable history of American popular song (Stephen Foster, Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb), 2) a basic list of jazz classics (Armstrong, Parker, Gillespie, Coltrane, Monk, Holiday, Fitzgerald, Davis), 3) a decent collection of country standards (Williams, Arnold, Ford, Cline, Cash, Husky, Nelson)  4) my favorite Texans (Keen, Lovett, Griffin, Griffith, Flatlanders, Clark, and Walker), and 5) my favorite rock, folk rock, and country rock (Dylan, Beach Boys, Doors, Credence,  Franklin, Brown, Browne, Eagles, Presley, Dead, Nelson, Gaye, Los Lobos, Hendrix, Joplin, Motown classics, Steely Dan, Talking Heads).   Of course, there is a lot more, but this gives you the general idea.
            From this list, I think you can see that I tend to like middle of the road stuff, a well-crafted song, a generally upbeat, if melancholic view of life, sincerity, and lyrics one can understand.  No punk, no metal, no hair bands, no rap, a little hip hop.  I do have a couple of Roots records downloaded, and Dr. J. has us covered in contemporary popular hip hop music.)
Carolina Chocolate Drops
            Along the way, I haven’t purchased much additional music.  Two Carolina Chocolate Drops records, a Michael Martin Murphy collection of cowboy songs, J.J. Cale (because he died and I really like J.J.Cale and will miss the albums of his I sold), and Lou Reed (because he died, and I wanted to think about him and his work while we were in New York).   I have contemplated adding Old and in the Way, some Ray Wylie Hubbard, and ZZ Top.  I still might.  Now that we are in Oregon, I expect to add The Decemberists.  Why I did not download their CD’s before we left town, I can’t remember.
            Having said all this, the funny thing is that, during the past nine months, I haven’t listened  to a great deal of music.   Like right now, it’s early Sunday morning in Collier Memorial State Park in Oregon.  I hear a few birds singing, a family or two quietly talking by their early morning fires, the boys are sleeping, Knightsmama is taking a morning stroll.  Why disturb this silence? 
            And being an old fart, I haven’t transitioned into the new way that we listen to music:  our own individual play lists, on our own individual ipods, every person plugged into our own individual set of ear buds.  In any crowd, we might be listening to the same selection of songs, but we do it separately.  But how would we know, permanently plugged in to our exclusive aesthetic., always reinforcing our own individual tastes and pleasures.  All this is another odd way that the younger generations are redefining what “community” and “self” are.  Anyway, my point is that I don’t like to drive with ear buds separating me from sounds of the road, nor am I going to force my family to relive the sixties and seventies every time we start the truck.
            In addition to my Ipod and Dr. J’s Ipod, we have a third one on loan from a couple of my high school friends, Liza and Alan Farrow Gillespie of Dallas.  In June before the trip began, I was in Dallas for a conference, so I imposed myself upon their hospitality.  Liza and Allan had done something that I thought was amazing.  In their forties, they had taken breaks from their work lives, bought a sailboat, and sailed around the world.  It took them several years, while they allowed time to work and enjoy different climes.  First, I wanted selfishly to talk with them about their adventure, just for the fun of learning about it.  More important, though, I was looking for a little courage and advice.  It seems odd now, since we have grown used to be being travelers, but back then I was afraid that as the trip stretched into its second, third, or sixth month that Knightsmama and I would begin to tear at each other’s throat, or otherwise inspire some such destruction and chaos.
            In a lovely Mexican food restaurant on McKinney Ave, Liza, Alan, and I  ate tacos and enjoyed margaritas.  I asked for their stories and their advice.  Their stories are harrowing and tender by turns.  Their deep love for each other and what have done together is obvious.  Their advice was sage:  make a plan, prepare for everything, don’t be afraid to abandon the plan, remember that all you have is each other, and that you are capable of accomplishing things you never thought possible.   It’s sound advice and keeps me even keeled as the Caravan criss-crossed the United States.
Album by Austin Band Starcrost
            Liza is also an accomplished singer and enjoyed a stint in Los Angeles doing studio session work.  One of the records I sold featured her as lead singer for an Austin fusion jazz band, Starcroft.  She knows music, so back at their condo and before I returned to my conference hotel, I asked her for a short list of her favorite American music and musicians.  It was a fun little game for a moment.  She would name someone and I would nod.  I would propose someone and she would dismiss him or her with a quick wave of her hand.  Then for several minutes she disappeared into a back room.  Alan and I caught up on his career.  He is a man with a big heart, a doctor caring for very ill children.  I mean, I think I do important work—helping folks acquire a basic education and retool for new career goals.  But where I work, there is no death and dying, no pain management for the innocent.  Then Liza returned with a list.  Showing why she is an excellent lawyer, she handed me a list responding to my exact question, which I can’t remember because I was merely trying to get her to talk about her tastes in music.  I was musing; she was writing a brief.
            Then something really strange happened.  About a week before the Caravan hit the road, Liza mailed us her own personal Ipod to borrow for the duration of the trip.  Her Ipod included about  almost 1300 songs in three playlists;  “60s Hits,” “Liza’s All Time Favorites,“ and just for us “American Roadtrip.”  While Dr. J. would certainly prefer to listen to his music exclusively, the family as a whole has settled pretty comfortably into “Liza’s Ipod.”  Sixty’s novelty songs like “Purple People Eater” and “Yellow Polk-a-Dot Bikini” are pretty effective mood enhancers.  I also refuse to take on Knightsmama when she begins singing along with British female performers such as Adele, Annie Lennox, and Amy Winehouse.   They are not American, but Knightsmama didn’t sign the American Road Trip Purity Pledge:  I did.
Don McLean and American Pie
            While Knightsmama appreciates the Townes Van Zandt, Patti Griffin, Credence, and Willie Nelson that I included on my Ipod, she becomes much more animated when Dr. J.  plays Rianna, Black Eye-Peas, CeeLo Green,Lady Gaga, Pink, or Macklemore.  But the two biggest hits so far on this trip have come from Liza’s  Ipod.  I would never have predicted either.  The first is Don McLean’s “American Pie.”  This is a song whose appeal I have resisted, without full success, ever since it first appeared.  Probably the only reason I resist it is that it was an instant hit and loved by everyone before I had a chance to love it.  I admit it.  I hate being one of the crowd.  I hate loving something for the same reason that everyone else loves it.  Don’t’ get me started about why I dislike The Big Chill and Forrest Gump.  I want to feel the same way about “American Pie” and “Starry, Starry Night,” for that matter.  As far as I remember, I never purchased this album.  But it is such a catchy tune for an emotionally complicated song.  A few days ago, Knightsmama ran her thumb around the Ipod’s little circle, and hit select.    At some moment, she began singing the chorus.  I began joining in on some of the more clever and memorable rhymes.  Then the next time the chorus came around, Captain Crunch added his voice.  I was driving, so I don’t know if Dr. J. ever shyly mumbled his voice to the chorus.  If I knew I wouldn’t say because I don’t want to embarrass a tough as nails teenage boy.  The truck, however, shook with our singing.  “Bye, bye, Miss American Pie  / Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.  / And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye, / singing 'this will be the day that I die.'”
You Can Get Everything You Want
            The joy of this sing-a-long has been bested on only two other occasions, by the same song.  No, one wasn’t “Take It Easy” in Winslow, Arizona.  Bizarrely, the hit song of our trip across America has been Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” the long version.    We have played it twice.  The first time, accidentally, on the first day of the trip.  Liza’s Ipod, on shuffle, took us from Austin to Houston for my friend Neal’s funeral, then all the way to Wills Point, east of Dallas.  It was a long day on the road.  When we were about twenty minutes outside of Wills Point, “Alice’s Restaurant” rolled up on the play list, and I thought, “Oh, nice, they have the short version on,” you know, the radio friendly version.  But, no, it was the full second side of the album.  (I know.  This is one of the records I sold as we packed up the house.)  All the way from, “This is a song about Alice”  to “the eight by ten glossy photos with the circles and arrows on the back of each one,” to “That was horrible.  If you want to end war and stuff you got to sing loud.”  And loudly my family sang, the first time as we approached The Buckaroo’s house at twilight on the first day of this adventure, and the second time about two weeks ago driving up a crazy tight switchback road on our way to King’s Canyon and the General Grant Tree. 
            While I would never have predicted that the most popular sing-a-long songs on this trip would be “American Pie” and “Alice’s Restaurant,” certainly I can say that I am proud that they are.  I remember a time twenty-five years ago, when my oldest son was in kindergarten, and “Yellow Submarine” was the go-to family sing-a-long song.  A fine choice, I suppose, at the time.    But I have to say, “Alice’s Restaurant” pleases me.  Woody Guthrie is one of my chosen saints for this adventure.  To include Arlo is added harmony.

Soundtrack Double Feature.  Don McLean:  "American Pie."

Arlo Guthrie:  "Alice's Restaurant Massacree"

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