Sunday, May 28, 2006

late seventies...i'd come back from hitchhiking 48 states, mexico, guatemala & canada, and was living in iowa city, a town that was a pretty good place for a guy like me to try and get a grip on reality. but one of the problems with being a notorious traveller, a rogue, a change agent, is that people who were attracted to me were often people who were bent on that kind of change, rather than, say, trying to settle down and earn a little stability. and the minute i opened my mouth it was obvious i'd seen a little of the other side- the unpredictable, the open road, the western wind. but my reaction to anything that tended to pen me in- for example, a possible affair with a married woman who for whatever reason saw me as liberation, or possibly knew i just had a hard time saying no, well in any case, my way of saying no was to just find a reason to take off, and do it. sometimes i'd go to mexico, or maybe california, but it was early july, so i decided to go north. and, because my 48 states included alaska but not north dakota, i headed north aiming for north dakota, but not really having any more specific destination in mind.

so when a trucker carrying an empty hog crate, or something like that, told me about a folk festival in winnipeg manitoba, i decided to take him up on it. i was well north of minneapolis, and i was carrying my banjo, which did not have a case, an old mountain banjo which is again in minneapolis even today with my friend matt. at that time though it was a magnet- it attracted comment, it gave me rides with truckers like this guy, and people gave me good tips, (like- go to winnipeg, and go now). in winnipeg i had the good fortune to run into a guy named hans, incredibly generous guy, who played banjo also, and knew the festival, and even took me there several times, as well as letting me stay in his house, where a number of interesting people, including his wife, lived. the festival was fantastic. i think i got in cheap or free, in return for working there, or some such thing, but i was bowled over by the music. celtic, irish, scottish, quebecois, blues, cajun, every imaginable genre, much of which i had never heard before. and lots that i had heard, and new well: bryan bowers, pete seeger, doc & merle, people like that. every time i turned around. some bands got right down into my bones and told me that i had a heritage that i had not known about previously. the tannahill weavers were like that; so was a quebecois band called ma tante alys (my aunt alice?), which i have been unable to find since. old celtic roots music sang out at me and made me put my banjo aside as a kind of shallow attention-getter, which it was. but then, the winnipeg paper got a picture of it and there i was again- a symbol of the travelling spirit arriving for the festival. at the same time my eyes were widening at the new things i was hearing- canada seemed to keep track of, collect, and even provide for all the carriers of its national heritage- i was being celebrated as a traveller bringing my own sounds into the mix...and i felt a little inadequate in that regard. but one guy i met said he was holed up in a school dormitory in banff, canadian rockies, out west, and it was all pretty stuffy, and what he really needed was a banjo picker like me to come out, make real loud banjo sounds in the middle of the night, and show these stuffed-shirts what real music was. he was insistent, and i remembered what the rockies were like in july...hard to resist. i promised i would.

so the festival pressed on- band after band, singer after singer, three or four days of it, best festival i've ever heard. i can't even remember the names- it's been about thirty years, and some were not that well known, even at the time, yet each of them, i remember, had brought their best and put it out there. the festival was held out in a field which had many stages at different ends of it, lots of high grasses, and patches of trees in various corners. i'd walk around literally unable to catch even half of what i wanted. and getting into incredible jams at will with various people. it may have been at that time that i first noticed that the banjo was somewhat limited in that you have to always play a certain kind of upbeat, country harmony- and you're not always in the mood. be that as it may, i was exhausted every evening, and found myself once getting a ride, but only part way, back to hans' house, and his wife was along. so we started walking back to the house, but it was late at night, maybe 12 or 1, a clear night with a big moon and stars, even in the city. this young woman also was quite beautiful, attracted to banjo-pickers, and...well, let's just say that talking to her was becoming very interesting, but at the same time, very frustrating, as she was the wife of my good friend. nevertheless, i was a talker, enjoyed talking, was enjoying the company, and then i noticed a very magical thing.

the whole city, every neighborhood that we walked through, was blanketed by gigantic elms, huge trees which used to be a canopy for entire midwestern cities such as toledo, ohio, where i spent my first ten years, but also iowa city, the iowa towns of my youthful visits to my grandparents, every town we'd drive through. these old elms would shade entire blocks for entire summers, make a huge green canopy- but they'd been wiped out, perhaps while i was further east, in pennsylvania and new york, but in any case by the time i came back out to iowa, at the age of 19, 1973, dutch elm disease had wiped out the whole lot of them from ohio on out past iowa and nebraska- people were still actively mourning them in iowa city, where iowa avenue was way too sunny. anyway, here in winnipeg, manitoba- they still had millions of them. every street, a tunnel, with majestic houses, and the canopy could see it clearly even in the middle of the night. we walked down numerous streets, all like this, and finally stopped at the grassy front of some church where we could talk, in the middle of the night, without waking people up- and that's when i heard the rustling above of the leaves of the canopy. it was like the music- it touched me down to my bones, it said to me, you have a heritage, your memories are deep inside you, and some things can touch you, can reach inside and make you remember. elms have a certain sound when a gentle breeze goes through them- this is a sound american midwesterners haven't heard for many years- and they have a certain look, that you get when you are lying on your back in the shade, and looking straight up.

back to the young woman- she understood the predicament, namely that she was already married, and to our credit, we were good kids that night, and though hans knew something was up, being not totally oblivious, he was a gentleman too. i'm sure she has long forgotten, though you never know, but i can't think of the phrase 'desire under the elms' without remembering that night; as it turned out, i felt bad enough, and decided to make good on my promise to the household friend in banff, which i did, going out past moose jaw and regina saskatchewan, making banjo music on demand, all one evening, in some dormitory of an art school or some such thing high in the canadian rockies, where july is cool but life expensive. unfortunately, on the way back, it was difficult to even get to north dakota, given the roads i was on, and i missed it again, stopping instead in some native american gathering, where the hot summer wind was blowing across the pine ridge somewhere outside rapid city. that's really another story; i could weave it in here, but what i remember most clearly about that experience, besides the hot blazing sun, the sunbaked high-grasses, and the wind, was somebody else's heritage being laid out to ruin by the europeans and the ravages of alcohol....and what the elms and old celtic, welsh and scottish music had to do with this i'm still not sure. it left me with a strange taste in my mouth, and an eagerness for a small cot, a natural foods bakery, and regular swims in an old farm quarry in iowa summers, what felt like my natural environment, with or without the elms, where i could straighten out what was what, and what was my place in it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great storyteller you are, Tom! Thanks for sharing a little about my corner of the world. I have gained a whole new appreciation for the elms we still have in Winnipeg.


11:35 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home