The Fabulous Folk Festival
I was happy to be settled back in with
my family and my banjo. Adventure was the last thing on my mind.
In fact, it was only because the kitchen garbage was full that I stirred
from the warm wood stove in my home to take in the brisk Autumn evening.
When it's cold, the stars seem to have an extra little twinkle to them,
like they're a bit wrinkled and brittle. I reflected on this as I
searched the stars to find Orion, the Hunter. By so doing, I almost fell
over OD Esse, my near nemesis...
"You scoundrel! What are you doing here?" I said, pointedly, and to the point as well. "I know," I said, holding out the garbage, "birds of a feather flock together..."
"What's eating you?" OD asked. "Don't tell me you harbor any lingering hostilities towards me over our trade."
"Only that I nearly got killed in a truck wreck, and had my wife stolen."
"When you start on the road to Adventure, you never know where it will lead," said OD. "However, in this case I do know where it leads. I am in process of forming a stunning bluegrass band, and unfortunately we lack a banjo player. More unfortunately, you're the only one I know of that's available. We are scheduled for the main stage of the Fabulous Folk Festival next week, so I thought I'd better come here and recruit you."
He had me. Although a diligent worker at my chosen profession, my one weakness was performance. Give me a stage and I'll hold forth from it. Pity the next act for they'll have to pry the microphone from my cold lips before I leave the stage. OD couldn't have known I was a member of Musicians Anonymous, or he would never had asked me to join his band. Or would he?
"I'll just slip in and get my banjo,
and tell Alice what's happening."
"Whoa! Banjo good, Alice bad. Do you really think your wife is going to warm to the thought of your spending a week to play for a free folk festival? Get the banjo, but just leave an ambiguous note. Tell her you had to leave on business. There's sure to be business prospects there." So I handed OD the garbage and went inside to do as he suggested. To say that my moral compass was weak would be an understatement. My moral compass was a gyroscope. I felt caught in a vortex, and so I removed my banjo from the back room and quickly packed an overnight bag, and set off into the night.
OD was driving a 1970's Datsun pickup
with a camper shell on the back.
"Say, this is a pretty good vehicle for the likes of you," I said. "Did you steal it?"
"Not that I was ever in serious need of it, but since last I saw you I've reformed significantly. I joined in an investigation of a jewel robbery, and was instrumental in retrieving the stolen jewels... I bought this truck with the insurance company reward. I also bought a new string bass, which I'm rapidly mastering."
"I never know what to believe whenever I listen to you, so I'll reserve comment until I see concrete evidence." This seemed to nettle him somewhat, so we rode in silence to the seedy coffeehouse where we were to be both practicing and entertaining, in limited quantities.
As we entered, there were a few shredded souls trying to regain aplomb with expresso. In the area that might resemble a stage were a chubby guy with a dreadnought guitar, and a tall woman with a fiddle. They were playing a fast fiddle tune as we entered, the kind I can never keep up with on the banjo. This was going to be a stretch if we were just planning to play fiddle tunes...
They finished their tune as we finished
tuning. Short introductions were made. For chronic musicians
like us, details like names and gender were unimportant. Well, I
did notice that Bob looked like the average American, and Lola was worth
staring at for hours with a lovesick grin on one's face, but then we started
playing. Someone like Lola was probably where the title of
the first tune we played came from--"Cottoneyed Joe." At least she would
have given Joe some kind of eye problem. We seemed to be on a Joe
medley, for we switched to "Hop high ladies," with the refrain, "Did you
ever see the Devil, Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe..." Some of the customers
even clapped when we finished. Then we started taking turns calling
the tune, pausing long enough to make sure everyone knew the key.
Before I knew it the coffeehouse was closing, and we were agreeing to meet there the next evening for practice.
I was feeling like a loose log getting
caught in a log jam. At the time I left home, somehow it made sense
packing a bag and committing to the whole week. Now, late at night, and
faced with probably sleeping in OD's camper, the brightness of my plan
had grown much dimmer. OD didn't make things any easier for me when
he drove off and left me while I was in the bathroom at the coffeehouse.
When I came out, Lola was the only one left.
"Well," she said. "See you tomorrow. Nice to have met you. For a banjo player you don't drool too much..."
I didn't take that last comment personally. Banjo players have to have hard skins--they're the butt of all the jokes in bluegrass... On the other hand, perhaps she was implying that I was discrete in not falling drooling in love with her at first sight. Fortunately, since I'm a banjo player, I don't study deep implications of things. I leave that for the fiddlers... So what if, in the intellectual way fiddlers have, she was paying me an (admittedly) off hand compliment. I would have to think of a clever way to respond, indicating that I thoroughly understood her every nuance...
"Oh, ahh," I said. Then she got in her car and drove away.
I was thinking that perhaps I didn't
do that last part quite right. Or perhaps I did, since being technically
(and any other way as well) married, it is not wise to make the nuanced
reply to incredibly beautiful fiddlers. Yes, I felt "Oh, ahh," was
probably the best I could have done. But, despite some miniscule
doubt as to the wisdom of cutting the response short, there was the larger
question of where I was to sleep, with no vehicle, and frost already settling
on the windshields of the few vehicles in the area. Blast OD for
his self preoccupation! He even took off with my sleeping bag...
A patrol car went by, slowing to give me the eye. My banjo case proclaimed I was not a common bum, but didn't excuse me in his eyes from several potential forms of intoxication... So I began to walk, hoping I'd come to a motel or something...
It was a long walk. Finally I
came to the Riverside Mission, a free flophouse for homeless souls.
I'd actually played there a time or two in some church gospel groups.
The midnight praise service was about to start.
I would have been more leary of going in if I hadn't been there previously, although the cold was beginning to force me to commit to the first warm place I came to anyway. One thing I'd heard was that a breath test was required for entry, so I wouldn't have to worry about drunk derelicts rolling me, just sober ones...
After I passed the entry test, I was encouraged to join the small band playing praise songs up front. My fingers were cold, but the songs were familiar and simple, so I played along for the service. Afterwards a lot of the derelicts came up and thanked me and gave me a big smile and handshake. Derelicts indeed...
Before long I was directed to some rows of beds, and morning was soon upon me.
As the morning coffee began to circulate
in my brain, I realized that from some perspectives I had once again run
off on my wife. This was, I thought, a rather distorted way of looking
at it, since my wife wasn't even really part of the equation. The
issue at hand was the Fabulous Folk Festival, and the intense commitment
it would take to pull off a good performance. At least this time
there was no talk of OD trading lives with me again... Although I'd
better ask him some specific questions as to where exactly he did spend
the night last night...
The issue more at hand was, where was I to spend the day, particularly since the Mission was bidding us all adieu in a directive fashion. Fortunately my banjo case comes equipped with my sales information, so I spent the day practicing the tunes from the previous night, and selling a few banjos along the way as well.
Before the evening practice began, I decided to give my wife a call. The line was busy, so I left her a musical voice mail:
Hello old friend, it's me again, I'm somewhere on the
I'm sorry to miss you again, as your cell phone has told.
Don't call back, again tonight, I'll be out late to jam,
Are you okay? I know that I am hoping that I am...
Good night old friend, alone again, like many nights before,
I wish that I could say good things, that I could think of more,
The evening sky is lonely here, and you are lonely there,
Good night, old friend, alone again, it isn't really fair...
It almost assuaged my guilt... But that was okay, because soon I was picking and grinning and having mocha lattes, and gazing only half moonstruck at Lola the fiddler. Guilt is a garment best worn loose.
If I were the kind of Christian that
viewed us as sinners in the hands of an angry God, the head cold I woke
up with the next morning was pure and simple punishment for marginally
pure thoughts I'd harbored towards that fiddle player. Fortunately
I subscribe to the germ theory, that tells me I started getting sick a
couple days ago. This still leaves open the question of free will versus
determinism, which I'm sure you're glad I've done, rather than belabor
the point... All I'll say is that Job and I had a lot in common...
We had two good practices in, and had the kind of musical rappoire that makes things like planning and practicing superfluous. That's what I told myself as I called my wife and asked her to bring me home to recuperate till it was time for the Festival. I figured two days was plenty of time to beat a common cold. The cold was figuring otherwise.
My wife suggested canceling, which was, of course, out of the question. I was, after all, still techically alive. If Forbes Magazine lists the top earning dead musicians every year, I, who make nothing from music, should at least perform while living. To this my wife replied that she thought my fever was worse. I continued to practice at home at the few moments when I wasn't coughing, wheezing, and sneezing. In an unguarded moment I assessed the difficulties this cold meant for my performance:
That sickness was still a factor as
I arrived at the festival, so I was already feeling light headed.
The volunteers were putting up a large banner framed in plastic pipes over
the door as I was going in. As I heard it later, one of the support
poles buckled, and the banner came down clonk on my head. I suppose
we'd be talking lawsuits here, if my concussion hadn't resulted in such
a great time at the festival.
Yes, I saw stars, and yes, things were sort of misty. I could swear I heard someone singing, "Go home with bonnie Jean" as I entered the festival building. I've always had the feeling these festivals were sort of Brigadoon type experiences. Folk music as a popular idiom died with the birth of the Beatles. But these festivals rise up from the mists of time to bring life to 'boomers' folk fantasies once more.
The fun thing about this concussion is that I apparently went back to the heydey of the folk music movement. In the first concert room was Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and Leadbelly, singing Irene Goodnight. I wandered into another room, with Peter, Paul, and Mary singing about jet planes and marvelous toys. Mississippi John Hurt was there with an orchestra in his fingers. Bob Dylan just played acoustic guitar with holder harmonica. The New Lost City Ramblers were recreating the 1920's on stage. I was having such a lovely time, till someone tapped me on the shoulder, and said it was time to do the sound check on the banjo for our set. When I said "What banjo?" and they pointed to the case I was carrying, it should have been a tip off to them that I had a problem, but they just joked about having to tell banjo players everything...Although I didn't remember the songs, or even who these people were that I was onstage with, I still remembered how to play the banjo. The CD given us by the sound guy afterwards was actually pretty good. They say when you have a concussion you revert back, so you might only remember your distant past. Fortunately I grew up on folk music, so my early self still had a sense for the chord changes.
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