Category Archives: Americana

The Antidote: 12,124 Miles

It is not easy to feel great about America right now. But there is an antidote.

My wife Riva and I spent nine weeks this summer on a cross-country trek in our trusty 2005 Toyota Camry with three hubcaps. “We’re from Brooklyn,” said Riva when I wanted to replace the missing hubcap before we ventured out. “I like the look. It says, ‘Don’t mess with me.’” IM-RB Columbia River Gorge

It’s 47 years since I first drove cross-country, camping with my buddy Howard. I had just graduated high school; Howard had finished his first year at Wharton. This 2017 trip was Riva’s first sea-to-shining-sea by car.

As now, 1970 was a politically fraught time in the U.S. The Vietnam War was raging, and it was on that trip that I learned my draft lottery number (206; no need to go to Canada). In the course of the 2017 trip, my Medicare card got activated, and we mostly steered clear of the news and talk radio.

Howard and I had a canvas tent that he recently threw out. Riva and I stayed mostly in cheap motels and Airbnb’s with good shower heads, comfortable mattresses, mini-fridges and complimentary breakfasts — sometimes quite extensive breakfasts, as at Miriam’s b&b in Whitefish, Montana and at the Piccadilly Motel in Radium Hot Springs, BC (yes, we went to Canada this time).

Howard and I visited mostly national parks along the southern route and ate a great deal of canned Chef Boyardee cheese ravioli, heated in the can on our camp stove. Riva and I primarily visited national and state parks and forests in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, shopping for provisions at farm stands, Safeways and IGAs. Typical dinner from our cooler: triple-washed arugula, pulled chicken, and orzo or Greek salad all mixed together.

How to feel great about America?

  • Pay heed to Mary, the ranger in Olympic National Park who, upon learning we wanted to take a late afternoon drive up to Hurricane Ridge, warned that we’d be “driving into a cloud with zero visibility, 40 mph winds, and heavy rains. I wouldn’t go myself.” Instead, Mary suggested a scenic 30-minute drive to Crescent Lake, where we might have drinks on the veranda or dinner at the lodge. We shared an artichoke and soup, and downed a local IPA and a Washington State chardonnay on an enclosed porch overlooking a lake that mirrored the mountains and the clouded sunset. Said Riva, “I could live out my days right here.” Next day, after thanking her for sending us to Crescent Lake, Mary gave us the thumbs-up for the magnificent hike on Hurricane Ridge.
  • Hear Woody Guthrie’s words come to life as you visit the National and State Redwood Forests in northern California. Drive or hike through the Avenue of the Giants and the Valley of the Giants at dusk, when the 300-foot tall trees jump out at you at every curve. Stay at the Curly Redwood Inn in Crescent City, CA, where the entire meticulously maintained 1950s motel is built from and decorated with the lumber produced by a single redwood tree.
  • Circle the Colorado National Monument, 20 minutes west of Grand Junction, Colorado, in the northwest corner of the state. Following the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive yields a stunning landscape of red rock cliffs and sandstone monoliths that rose out of the earth as much as 1.5 billion years ago. One of my favorites, with little tufts of green sprouting from the rocks, resembles Kermit the Frog (look carefully in the lower left corner of the left photo).
  • Celebrate a 16-year-old Mennonite girl in Fairfield, Montana (pop. 724) whose parents hosted us in their Airbnb and who passionately told her big city guests, “Town may only be two blocks long, but it has everything you could ever need.” Elk RoomHer 24-year-old brother had sacrificed his room for our benefit when our plans changed at the last minute — we got “The Elk Room,” complete with three sets of antlers, elk light switch plate, elk sheets, and elk lamp.
  • Turn into every scenic viewpoint or bypass. They are there for good reason. In 12,124 miles, we took most of them — and regretted only those we didn’t see soon enough to slow down. Sometimes we made U-turns to get back to them, as we did after passing a drive-through Lady Bug Bikini Espresso shed in Tacoma and a lavender farm in Sequim, WA (pronounced Skwim).
  • StrawberriesShop local, especially when in season. “Those strawberries? My parents picked them two hours ago,” said the young man running the Esparto, CA farm stand proudly. “The peaches were yesterday afternoon.” We ate the peaches in the parking lot, our chins still dripping as we went back for more. He works the farm nine months a year, then travels the globe the other three months.
  • Listen to the woman in that same parking lot who, overhearing about our trip, volunteered that “the best butcher you’ll ever find is five miles down this road.” That’s a challenge to this son of a butcher, I explain, especially given that we weren’t cooking on the road. “They make the best roast beef sandwiches,” she promised. They did. And then, taking another scenic detour, we happened upon the Featherbed Railroad Bed & Breakfast in Lake County, California, which she’d also recommended. Nine cabooses, each on a small track-bed and each with its own period furnishings.
  • Bring a dedicated camera with good optical zoom as well as your Smartphone to document the bears, elk, big horn sheep, mountain goats, moose (if you’re lucky), birds, bison, and buffalo.

    And use Google or Siri or Alexa to discover how to distinguish crows from ravens, complete with samples of the different sounds they make. Couldn’t do that in 1970!

Each day brought new delights. Just as we might start thinking, “Gee, that was so incredible, nothing is going top it, let’s just start home,” we’d take another detour, hike, or drive and discover another breath-taking waterfall in Yosemite completely unlike any of the others we’d seen. White Cap GeyserOr be among the first to reach the just-cleared-of-snow Logan Pass in Glacier National Park in July. Or witness from just steps away the little-visited White Cap Geyser in Yellowstone which shoots 30-feet into the air promptly every half hour on the quarter hour and is but a few miles from finicky Old Faithful. Or find ourselves laying on a tarp on an open field in Yosemite at 10 p.m., staring at the night sky as a ranger recounts how his mother climbed El Capitan with him, at 18 months old, on her back, starting the process of instilling in him a passion for nature and country.

You don’t have to spend nine weeks or travel across the country for this antidote to work. The genesis of this trip was a series of family and work events that happened to take us NY>Chicago>Las Vegas>LA, in that order, over the course of three weeks.

There were stops along that route, too, visiting Ohio’s Cuyahoga National Park near Youngstown, OH where Riva grew up; getting a quick tour of St. Louis from plein air artist and muralist Allen Kriegshauser and his wife Patti (top row above right is one of Allen’s murals for a classroom at the Museum of Transportation in Kirkwood, MO), stopping for great BBQ at Q39 in Kansas City after visiting the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and so on. Being in LA positioned us to visit the USS Midway and get a fascinating over-in-an-instant five hour private tour of the aircraft carrier by Riva’s cousin/doctor/Midway docent Bob Berns. And then it was Yosemite and north.

What we ultimately learned, as Riva put it upon our return, “We need more green in our lives.” And that can be whatever local park, forest or trail is available, for however long we/you have.

That’s America the beautiful. And that’s easy to feel great about.

Text and photos © 2017 Ira Mayer.

Remembering Oscar Brand

BROOKLYN, NY; OCTOBER 5, 2016—In the late 1960s/early ’70s I took a course on New York City Street Songs with Oscar Brand and Theodore Bikel at the New School for Social Research (as the full name was known then). Learning to think of jump rope songs as “folk music” changed the way I thought of “folk music” forever. And you can’t think of Oscar without recalling all the bawdy songs, many of which he recorded and which he periodically performed in concert. When our son was a poli sci major at GWU I gave him a copy of Oscar’s album of election songs that went back to the Revolutionary War era, a distillation of his book on the subject and the years of free Presidents’ Day concerts he gave at the Great Hall of Cooper Union.

Oscar passed away at 96 last Friday.

The range of Oscar’s musical knowledge was astonishing—he also wrote two Broadway musicals—but so was his gentle soul and gentlemanly way. He would roam an audience when it wasn’t his show and come over to say hello to anyone he recognized, never waiting for others to come to him, partly, no doubt, canvassing for guests for his weekly WNYC radio show, which ran continuously for 70 years with the same host. Continuously until the week before he died.

I still have my notes from that six-session class. Not to mention wonderful memories of many short conversations, performances, and radio shows. Oscar, may you and Theo be singing in the sky by and by…

For more complete obits, see: The Observer, The New York Times and WNYC, the latter with links to further resources at the station.

Marie & Rosetta: Up Above Their Heads They Heard Music, Indeed. So Will You

Marie & Rosetta is a stirring and often rousing musical biography of the life of gospel popularizer (and rock and roll predecessor) Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The work focuses on Tharpe’s relationship with her protégé Marie Knight, who Tharpe pulled from Mahalia Jackson’s backup choir and with whom she performed for three years. Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones as Tharpe and Knight, respectively, belt out the music true to its origins. Playwright George Brant struggled to find an ending, and it’s a little distracting the way the two stars have to mime playing their piano and guitar to (admittedly excellent) off-stage accompaniment, but those few awkward minutes do nothing to diminish the impact of the songs or the story. Directed by Neil Pepe. Runs through October 2 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s W. 20th Street house, NYC.

What’s My Opinion Worth, Anyway?

BROOKLYN, NY; August 18, 2016—I was 18 in 1970 when I started writing about music for the Village Voice, often covering  what is now referred to as “Americana,” but was then just known as “folk music.” Much of what I wrote about was pretty rarefied: Blind Alfred Reed, Aunt Molly Jackson, Michael Cooney but also John Denver, Doc Watson, and then lots of rock and roll. Yes, I pretty much saw and listened to, and often reviewed, every musician and band out there between 1970 and 1990 when I stopped writing for newspapers.

But back in the early 1970s, when I went to interview Sandy and Caroline Paton, the founders of Folk-Legacy Records in Sharon, CT, they were taken aback at what I drove (a Camaro—they were expecting a VW bug) and my age (“You write as though you’ve been listening to this music for years!”) Similarly, it was two years after I first started writing for the Voice before I met my editor, Diane (Annie) Fisher (if you’re out there, thank you for getting me started!). I’d been putting my reviews and articles under the door at 80 University Place — the Voice’s home then — on Sunday afternoons, and buying the paper on Wednesdays to see if they’d run what I’d written.

I was in college, at Hunter, and didn’t even realize the Voice was going to pay me, but they did! When I finally mustered the courage to go meet the editor, her  assistant wouldn’t announce me. “We assumed Ira Mayer was a pseudonym for one of the other writers here, and that those checks we were sending to Rockaway Beach were supporting some woman! Just go in and introduce yourself.”

What I was learning was the importance of writing authoritatively; that, and doing my best to write in proper English and to deliver on deadline, got me into The Sunday New York Times for several years back then, too and about a decade later as pop music reviewer and feature writer for the New York Post for about 13 years.

Yes, I listened widely, read a great deal, had been playing piano for at least 10 years by the time I started, and had taught myself guitar and banjo, and took some accordion lessons. But would any of that count for expertise in an era where anyone (even me) can blog? What’s anyone’s opinion worth, anyway? Or mine?

Here’s Tom Nicholls, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, on The Death of Expertise, as published in The Federalist: “I fear we are witnessing the ‘death of expertise’: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.” (Thanks Michelle Dollinger for the link to Nicholls.)

Newport Folk Festival 2015 Goes Roots-y (But Hasn’t It Always Been So?)

Except for the history/continuity implied in the existing name, the Newport Folk Festival might more accurately be called the Newport Roots Music Festival, what with The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Jason Isbell, and a host of other not-very-folkie acts on the roster.

The irony was lost on no one at this year’s 56th edition of the outdoor festival at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island, that many of the musicians who might be labeled “folk” (as opposed to indie rockers with a roots bent) were relegated to a small indoor location called the Museum Stage. It’s called that because it’s housed in a museum building on the site, but irony is irony.

There were more acoustically-based folk-like exceptions than those on the Museum Stage, of course, and some of them drew mighty crowds and ovations. Mind you, because there are four stages offering music more or less simultaneously, one can at best only hear about a quarter of what’s going on, even with moving between stages to catch parts of different sets. That said, here are some of my personal highlights:

  • Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn on the main Harbor Stage, sharing seven banjos between them and playing a sparkling set of traditional (a stunning “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”), gospel, and original songs.
  • The Watkins Family Hour, with Sara and Sean Watkins and friends including Fiona Apple at the Fort Stage. In addition to their own electrified string band repertoire, Sara was ubiquitous on the Friday she and the band were at the festival, adding grace notes (and grace) as she sat in with others throughout the day, while Apple delivered a swinging “When I Get Low I Get High.”
  • Spirit Family Reunion, a Brooklyn, NY-based band that plays wonderful original old-timey-infused string band music, and brought higher energy and enthusiasm to their set than their wonderful albums would suggest.
  • Christopher Paul Stelling, another Brooklyn, NY-based artist (should there be a Newport Brooklyn event?), this one a singer/songwriter with a high tenor and intense delivery that may have been the breakout performance of the festival. (The ovation that followed was hurt not at all by his getting down on one knee and proposing to his girlfriend/harmony singer Julia Christgau right in front of the crowd.)
  • James Taylor, returning as a surprise guest for the first time since 1969. (I’ve been back since, but 1969 was my first Newport, as well.) Festival impresario and Paste magazine editor-at-large Jay Sweet introduced Taylor noting that his set in 1969 was cut short because of the moon landing. Indeed it had been cut short, as Pete Seeger came out moments after Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, stuck a piece of paper to the microphone stand with some chewing gum, and sang a song he’d composed on the spot. (I don’t know that that song ever appeared anywhere else again.) Meanwhile Taylor was also on the Sunday afternoon “new faces” bill at the 1969 Festival, along with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell. That show was ill attended due to torrential rains, but my buddies Howard and Loring stuck it out with me. This half hour set in 2015 dwelled mostly on songs Taylor could have performed in 1969, and if he was a little off-key, it was a sweet set all the same.

At the end of the set Taylor brought George Wein out. Wein is the man who made the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals into internationally-recognized events, and while Sweet has done the Folk Festival programming for a number of years, Wein, now 89, is still the force behind Newport. Wein explained that he’d been on a cruise that Taylor was performing on, and when the two spoke afterwards, Taylor told Wein that he (Taylor) was aware of what was going on with the Folk Festival, and how it sells out months before a single performer is announced. “It speaks to the integrity of what you’ve created,” Taylor told Wein. Wein responded, “Then why don’t you come play?” And he did. That, too, was sweet — and well-deserved. I can certainly think of no other festival that sells out without announcing a roster.

But the embrace of “roots,” or whatever you want to call it, is what the festival has truly always been about, from Van Morrison to Mississippi John Hurt, The Decemberists to Doc Watson. This year, though, gave the spotlight to a ghost of the past to inform just about every set I saw, as well as those my family reported back to me, our having divided to conquer those four active stages.

This, after all, was the 50th anniversary of the year Bob Dylan plugged in and “went electric.” Whatever the controversies over whether Pete Seeger wanted to ax the electricity, whether the sound mixers needed time to make adjustments since there had been no rehearsal with full audience in the open air, and whether the boos outnumbered the cheers, that performance changed Newport, and folk, and rock and roll forever.

I wasn’t backstage this year, but musician after musician noted that Dylan’s guitar was hung backstage to honor the occasion and, clearly, inspire the musicians. When the crowd roared its approval of alt-country rocker Sturgill Simpson’s highly electrified set, the Kentucky-born singer cracked, “Sixty years ago you would have booed me off the stage.” OK, he had his dates off, but he got the spirit.

Brandi Carlile, who has been embraced by the “roots” community though she seemed on recordings to be very pop to me, performed a high energy set with second guitar and bass, opting to leave the drums at home for this gig. “If you’re a band and the electricity goes out and you’re not a band — you’re not a band,” she told the deservedly adoring crowd. She re-worked songs she’d done in the studio with full band for Newport. “Dylan could do both,” she added, so why shouldn’t others. Special kudos to her for working up a set that fit the moment.

The only real mystery performance (as in why was he on the bill at all, let alone as the Friday headliner) was Roger Waters. Yes, that Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd. Admittedly, he, too, tried to capture the spirit of the anniversary, throwing in Dylan’s “Forever Young” to close his set. But his was a performance that just didn’t gel in and of itself or relative to anything else that appeared on the stages at Newport.

Others that impressed on first hearings of partial sets, in no particular order: Laura Marling, Jose Gonzalez, The Lone Bellow, Jason Isbell, Leon Bridges, Tallest Man On Earth, The Goodbye Girls, a New Orleans/Chicago mini-festival on that Museum Stage that got hotter and hotter (note for next year: not much signage or information about those playing that stage).

Apart from Newport Folk Festival t-shirts, the shirts that seemed to be worn by the most people were from the Grateful Dead farewell shows which had played just weeks before Newport in San Diego and Chicago. The Dead would have been perfectly at home at this Newport festival — they were nothing if not a “roots” band — and groups such as Spirit Family Reunion, Watkins Family Hour, and Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn would have complimented any Dead concert grandly.

The grand finale at Newport, though, paid ultimate tribute to Dylan — who toured with the Dead in the 1980s — with just the right spirit of joy and, in its own way, rebellion. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings brilliantly anchored a 90-minute salute that opened simply with the two of them doing an acoustic “Mr. Tambourine Man.” They added a host of musicians who’d been at the Festival, performing in other capacities or seemingly just hanging out until called upon for this celebration, and building the electrification slowly but steadily.

Performers included Al Kooper, Willie Watson, Hozier, Deer Tick, Dawes lead singer Taylor Dawes and former Dawes bandmate-now-solo-artist Blake Mills, Robyn Hitchcock (English folk-rocker from the ’80s who introduced his version of “Visions of Johanna” as “the greatest song ever written”), and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Kooper was the only musician who appeared with Dylan in 1965, and, excuse the aside, a few weeks later he joined Watkins Family Hour at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in New York, where they played “Highway 61 Revisited” in its entirety. The show was live streamed, and a video of it surfaced briefly on Youtube before being taken down by Lincoln Center; hopefully that performance will resurface. It was heartfelt and intense and musicianly and a mini-festival unto itself, with additional guests including Shawn Colvin, Aimee Mann, and others.

By the end of the Dylan tribute at Newport, though, most of the musicians who’d played the Festival that day were on stage, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band provided the perfect raucous underpinning for “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Wherever Bob Dylan was that night, I hope he got the good vibes as 15,000 fans across generations sang mightily along. “Everybody must get stoned,” indeed.