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December 31, 2014

Not the Last Lists of 2014

When I was a little kid, my mother read me stories from the Shirley Temple fairy tale book. There was a picture on the back of her with her son. She was the same age as my Mom, similar looking. I confused the two in my day-dreams; I wanted to be myself and the son of Shirley Temple, Miss Bright Eyes grown up to be perfect.
I can still remember some of those stories fifty-five years later, which I re-read and studied twenty years later for an M.A. in folklore. And I still like her movies. We need more innocence and joy, not more cynicism and sarcasm. Shirley Temple Black died this year.
So did a lot of great musicians, writers and others. Here's my annual list.
Alberta Adams
Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith
Bob Casale (Devo)
Bobby Keys
Bobby Womack
Bud Spangler
Claudio Abbado
David Lamb
Dawn Sears
Don Lanier
Franny Beecher (Bill Haley’s Comets)
Fred Ho
George Shuffler (Stanley Brothers)
Gerald Wilson
Gerry Goffin
Herb Jeffries
Horace Silver
Ian McLagan
Iola Brubeck (Dave Brubeck’s wife)
Jack Bruce
Jay Traynor
Jean Redpath
Jerry Vale
Jesse Winchester
Jessica Cleaves
Jimmy C. Newman
Jimmy Ruffin
Joe Cocker
Joe Frazier (Chad Mitchell Trio)
Johnny Winter
Larry Henley
Little Jimmy Scott
Lorin Maazel
Maria von Trapp
Millie Kirkham (Elvis)
Paco de Lucia
Paul Horn
Paul Revere
Pete Seeger
Phil Everly
Ronny Jordan
Roy Campbell, Jr.
Sean Potts (Chieftains)
Steven Fromholz
Tim Hauser
Tommy Ramone

Allen Grossman
Amiri Baraka
Carolyn Kizer
Claudia Emerson
Curt Gentry
Diann Blakely
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Galway Kinnell
Joe McGinniss
Jonathan Schell
Juan Gelman
Justin Kaplan
Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Mark Strand
Mary Rodgers
Maxine Kumin
Maya Angelou
Nadine Gordimer
Peter Matthiessen
Rene Ricard
Thomas Berger
Vern Rutsala
Wynn Chamberlain
Alvin Dark
Ben Bradlee
David Brenner
Don Pardo
Eli Wallach
Elizabeth Peña
Garrick Utley
Gerardo D’Ambrosio
Gregory Jacobs (the S.F. bushman)
James Garner
Jay Adams (Z-boys)
Lauren Bacall
Mickey Rooney
Mike Nichols
Paul Mazursky
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Ralph Waite
Richard Attenborough
Robin Williams
Rubin “Hurricane” Carter
Ruby Dee
Saul Zaentz
Shirley Temple Black
Sid Caesar
Stephen Gaskin
Tom Magliozzi
Tony Gwynn
Virna Lisi.
Happy Trials for 2015, Martin
Mutt:  2015, that'll be my year. I'm sure of it.
Jeff:  Year to do what?
Mutt:  That's what I'm not so sure of. But it's gonna be big.
Jeff:  A big bang. Big wind.  Don't forget my friend: Never start a vast project with a half-vast idea.
Mutt:  Oh yeah, I forgot. Heard any good jokes lately?
Jeff:   The same old duds.
Mutt:  Doctors tell us there are over seven million people who are overweight. These, of course, are only round figures.
Jeff:  What is the purpose of reindeer?
Mutt:  Got me.
Jeff:  It makes the grass grow, sweetie.
Mutt:  Darling, the other day I sent my girlfriend a huge pile of snow. I rang her up and asked, "Did you get my drift?"
Jeff:  I don’t know, did she?  And where do you find giant snails?
Mutt:  I know. On the ends of giant's fingers.
Jeff:  Why is Saudi Arabia free of mental illness?
Mutt:  Obviously because there are nomad people there.
Jeff:  Question: How did Christopher Columbus finance his trip to America?
Mutt:  Answer: With the Discover Card.
Jeff:  Thought so. So show me where Stalin's buried and I'll show you a communist plot.
Mutt:  So four fonts walk into a bar. The barman says "Oi - get out! We don't want your type in here"
Jeff:  I was on an elevator the other day, and the operator kept calling me 'son.' I said, 'Why do you call me 'son'? You're not my father.' He said, 'I brought you up, didn't I?'
Mutt:  Well?  You know, without geometry, life is pointless
Jeff:  Happy New Year to you too.



October 31, 2014

Losers Cry

We, and I say we when discussing the San Francisco Giants because the players always say they couldn’t have won without the fans so I accept that responsibility, we really stunk in June and July. We lost over and over; the whole team in a slump, a blue funk, unexplainable. Slowly we crawled out of the grave by our claws, but this season wasn’t pretty. We had so many wins from the spring that we could keep a short distance behind the Dodgers right up till the end when we were allowed to play a sudden death match against Pittsburg for the wild card. Pittsburg was picked to win, we did. Then we had to play 5 against the Nationals, who were favored to win the World Series. We won. Then we took on the other strongest National League team of the last few years, who regularly chews us up and spits us out, the Saint Louis Cardinals. We won. Then the World Series against the Kansas City Royals, another underdog, another wild card winner. Where is Kansas City? Who are these guys? They aren’t famous, like a team out of a cornfield. And they had an up and down season too. Maybe the two teams are too similar for one to dominate, without 'maybe'. In game 6 we lost 10-0 to these upstarts, ugly ugly. We won game 7 by using our secret weapon, an ace pitcher that is nearly an unhittable pitching machine. Oh, we won.
I stayed up all night every time there was a game on because they were broadcast live in Italy starting at 1 or 2 am. One game went 18 innings and almost 7 hours. I loved every second. My students thought I looked tired. But what I want to talk about is something that happened after our victory. In 2010 we were shocked and giddy that our scrappy cast-off team of nobodies had actually beaten all the best. We hooted and laughed for the first time in our baseball lives. In 2012 we had a solid team of, well, Giants and we swept Detroit unceremoniously. We cheered our heads off and shook our fists. You unbelievers take that. Still calling it 'luck'?
This year we were considered ‘most unlikely to’, so that the only believers in our skill and will were our own players, staff and fans. Outside San Francisco everyone was paying attention elsewhere. So when all of the above happened, the news crows pounced on our players to interview them with the usual “how does it feel?” Or rather, “Nobody thought you could win, how does it feel?”

Larry Baer, our fearless leader, had bloodshot red eyes when he appeared in public to accept the trophy. Brian Sabean, a tough SOB, cried like a baby. Bruce Bochy, a big grizzly bear, cried on camera. Grown men. Pablo Sandoval, who some people think will be a future Dodger, cried during his interview. And Jeremy Affeldt couldn’t keep it together enough to even talk. Not to mention guys I didn’t see: Dave Righetti, Tim Hudson, Jake Peavy, Travis Ishikawa, Ryan Vogelsong, Hunter Pence, Joe Panik, Lou Seal, Ashkon, and so on. Or shortstop Brandon Crawford pictured above at age 5. Plus about 1 million fans. Why all the tears of joy? Enough to fill AT&T to the upper deck? Me included. Why?

Because the whole baseball world called us LOSERS. They said we didn’t have a chance in hell. The experts had already picked the World Series winner as LA or Baltimore or Oakland or somebody, anybody but not the Giants, a so-so team with a couple better-than-average players. Vindication is sweet. Yes, yes, yes.

Happy trials, Martin
Mutt:  Whoa, he’s back!
Jeff:  Let’s not make a big deal out of it. It’s probably an oversight.
Mutt:  Sorry, I misspoke.
Jeff:  I was reading some interesting definitions from my college dictionary.
Mutt:  Lay ‘em on me.
Jeff:  MIDNIGHT OIL: (n) What you make popcorn in.
Mutt:  I’m hungry.
Jeff:  WRISTWATCH: (n) That device on your arm that lets you know which class you're currently late for.
Mutt:  The boss wears one in his pocket.
Jeff:  WEEKEND : (n) Two day period during which your growling stomach makes you really wish you'd signed up for the seven day meal plan.
Mutt:  I voted for Obama because he said: Yes Weekend!
Jeff:  VENDING MACHINE : (n) A coin operated device for dispensing breakfast, lunch and usually dinner.
Mutt:  Still hungry.
Jeff:  YALE: (1) (n) A well known ivy league university. (2) (v) What southern cheerleaders do.
Mutt:  Rat own!
Jeff:  YEARBOOK: (n) A book containing student pictures that will keep getting nerdier and nerdier as the years go by.
Mutt:  I styled my hair like Cindy Lauper.
Jeff:  Farrah Fawcett. YESTERDAY: (n) When the 12 page paper you started tonight was due.
Mutt:  More college humor?
Jeff:  ZERO: (n) The number of times you've gotten to eat most of the pizza you ordered.
Mutt:  Were we roommates, I can’t remember?
Jeff:  We never went to college, just Hard Knocks High.
Mutt:  I flunked out.
Jeff:  Me too. ZOO: (n) What dorms would look like if they were a little neater.
Mutt:  If my wife and your wife got together and hired two maids.
Jeff:  I saw that film. The Little Mere Maid.
Mutt:  Shut up.


April 25, 2014

Mutt and Jeff to the Rescue

Mutt:  Think the boss's unwell?
Jeff:  Why? Cuz he ain't written his stupid blog in a while?
Mutt:  Like a hella long while.  Oowah!
Jeff:  An embarrassing long while.
Mutt:  Maybe he's super-busy with some super-important project.
Jeff:  Maybe he's just a super-lazy slacker. A gold-bricker. Layin' down on the job.
Mutt:  Yeah. As Confusedest says: Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow.
Jeff:  And just who is Confusedest?
Mutt:  Ancient sage from New Jersey.
Jeff:  So what do we do till he gets his (euphemism alert) ACT together?
Mutt:  Keep the boat afloat, baby. It's up to us now.
Jeff: Okay, baby. Let's see, heard any good jokes lately?
Mutt:  As Peewee Herman would say.
Jeff:  As Jimmy Durante would say: I got a dozen of 'em!
Mutt:  Adjusted for inflation.
Jeff:  You're a scientist, do you know Cole's Law?
Mutt:  Enlighten me.
Jeff:  Thinly sliced cabbage. 
Mutt:  If a parsley farmer is sued, could they garnish his wages?  
Jeff:  To me, boxing is like a ballet, except there's no music, no choreography, and the dancers hit each other.
Mutt:  Well put. Did you read about the truck carrying copies of Roget's Thesaurus that overturned on the highway?
Jeff:  How terrible!
Mutt:  The local newspaper reported that onlookers were "stunned, overwhelmed, astonished, bewildered, and dumbfounded." 
Jeff:   I would have been shocked, stupefied and shook up.
Mutt:  Did I ever tell you how many existentialists it takes to change a lightbulb? 
Jeff:  No, but I bet you will.
Mutt:  And you can't stop me. It takes two. One to screw it in and one to observe how the lightbulb itself symbolized a single incandescent beacon of subjective reality in a netherworld of endless absurdity reaching toward a maudlin cosmos of nothingness.
Jeff:  For the love of Mike.
Mutt:   I also know that the parts of speech are lungs and air.
Jeff:  The inhabitants of Moscow are called Mosquitoes.
Mutt:  A census taker is man who goes from house to house increasing the population.
Jeff:  Define H2O and CO2.
Mutt:  Way too easy: -- H2O is hot water and CO2 is cold water. 
Jeff:  A virgin forest is a forest where the hand of man has never set foot.
Mutt:  The general direction of the Alps is straight up. 
Jeff:  Are we on a roll yet? 
Mutt:  Say: ... Where do baby storks come from? 
Jeff:  Oh my, I don't know. Maybe I'll go jump off the bridge ... of your nose.
Mutt:   I'll jump on your mug first. Put up your dukes, you scallywag!
Jeff:  That does it! I'm not telling you my best joke then.
Mutt:  Aw, come on, please Jeffy, please.
Jeff:  After Quasimodo's death, the bishop of the Cathedral of Notre Dame sent word through the streets of Paris that a new bell ringer was needed. The bishop decided that he would conduct the interviews personally and went up into the belfry to begin the screening process. After observing several applicants demonstrate their skills, he had decided to call it a day. Just then, an armless man approached him and announced that he was there to apply for the bell ringer's job. The bishop was incredulous."You have no arms!" "No matter," said the man. "Observe!" And he began striking the bells with his face, producing a beautiful melody on the carillon. The bishop listened in astonishment; convinced he had finally found a replacement for Quasimodo. But suddenly, rushing forward to strike a bell, the armless man tripped and plunged headlong out of the belfry window to his death in the street below. The stunned bishop rushed to his side. When he reached the street, a crowd had gathered around the fallen figure, drawn by the beautiful music they had heard only moments before. As they silently parted to let the bishop through, one of them asked, "Bishop, who was this man?" I don't know his name," the bishop sadly replied, "but his face rings a bell." 
Mutt:  Say 'Happy trials'.
Jeff:  Happy trials.

March 24, 2014

The Changing Light by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The Changing Light by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The changing light
                 at San Francisco
       is none of your East Coast light
                none of your
                            pearly light of Paris
The light of San Francisco
                        is a sea light
                                       an island light
And the light of fog
                   blanketing the hills
          drifting in at night
                      through the Golden Gate
                                       to lie on the city at dawn
And then the halcyon late mornings
       after the fog burns off
            and the sun paints white houses
                                    with the sea light of Greece
                 with sharp clean shadows
                       making the town look like
                                it had just been painted

But the wind comes up at four o'clock
                                     sweeping the hills

And then the veil of light of early evening

And then another scrim
                  when the new night fog
                                        floats in
And in that vale of light
                      the city drifts
                                    anchorless upon the ocean

January 28, 2014

To Pete Seeger

Goodbye Pete and thanks.
Pete Seeger just died, and I need to write this because he was the most important public figure in my life. I only met him once, but he was a mentor to me in my days of singing folk songs in public schools and hosting a radio program, for a decade, of American traditional music "With a banjo on my knee", plus a Master's in folklore with a massive song collection and analysis as my thesis. In my 1960's elementary school, we listened to his records and learned the songs by heart. His music rang throughout the anti-war protests and anti-nuclear demonstrations of my teen years (We Shall Overcome). His impact on American politics is great, but his impact on American music even greater. He taught us Americans our own music, not the commercial products forced down our throats. When he was blacklisted and starving, he recorded hundreds of traditional songs in Moe Ashe's tiny Folkways studio, many of which might have been forgotten without his careful conservation. Influenced by his musicologist father and classical musician mother, Pete studied and transcribed and recreated from live musicians (see Rainbow Quest) and scanty recorded sources. He reconstructed a nearly lost heritage that inspired the Folk Revival.

"I showed the kids there's a lot of great music in this country they never played on the radio."

I have his records and books, but I also have several old-time banjos. Would so many people be playing this peculiar instrument without the promotion Pete did for the five-string? Maybe some bluegrass players in the Scruggs style, but not the 60's style folk banjo, frailing, clawhammer, old-time. He drew a banjo on the book he signed for me.

When I met Pete Seeger at his after-concert birthday party in the mid-80's, I was singing regularly in the Sicilian schools with a program of American folk songs and a booklet of translations and historical context. I told him about it and thanked him for his example. He thanked me for keeping the tradition alive, taking it abroad; Carry It On was the name of the book he'd just produced. I had had the impression that he was a crusty New England hermit-type, but he was warm and friendly, wanting to know who I was and how I got to where I was. We shook hands, and later he was given a banjo-shaped birthday cake. After we sang him the song in three-part harmony, Pete gave the first piece to me. It was the best cake of my life.

Carry it on. I tried to copy Pete in my playing and singing and life-style, as did thousands of other people, almost a generation. He always wanted everyone to sing along, and so we did. I'm sure I'll have more to say about Pete Seeger in the coming days, but this is for gratitude and remembrance.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt and Jeff are busy playing banjos and acoustic guitars in the next room, singing at the top of their voices the American Favorite Ballads.

January 16, 2014

Getting Old in Good Company

I had a birthday recently.
Along with the beautiful people in these pictures.


I got a letter recently.
It came in the mailbox, hand-addressed, with expensive American stamps on it, little works of art.
It felt like the 80's, when you could keep these precious expressions of love and friendship in a box in the basement.
My mother wrote me once a month back then, and I answered.
I miss hand-written letters.

I met an old friend recently.
We knew each other in the 80's and, apparently, had great times together. He listed them.
He was thrilled to see me again, invited me over, would not take 'no'.
I smiled and nodded.
I have no idea who he was, no recollection of him at all.
I tried but nothing.

My nephew wrote an essay for school recently.
It was all about me, his mythical uncle.
He told about the great things I do or have done.
He left out a lot that he doesn't know about.
Some of it would not impress him if he did.
The essay, though, was flattering, almost a eulogy.
According to him, my birthday should be made a national holiday.
Am I that far gone?

Are you getting old too?
Do you feel the fire dying down inside?
I don't.
I'm feeding it more than ever, like a fireman on a steam locomotive, who does the opposite of a fireman in town.
I may look nostalgically back down the track, but there's still plenty of road ahead. Shovel that coal, blow that whistle, and catch me if you can!
Plus I got plenty of beautiful people to ride with. As do we all.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Hey Jeff, did you ever work for a living?
Jeff: A living? No. I worked for money once. No, just kidding.
Mutt: One time I worked in the woods as a lumberjack, but I just couldn't hack it, so they gave me the axe.
Jeff: I tried to be a tailor, but I just wasn't suited for it. The job was only so-so anyhow.
Mutt: I attempted to be a deli worker, but any way I sliced it, I couldn't cut the mustard.
Jeff: I wanted to be a barber, but I just couldn't cut it.
Mutt: My best job was being a musician, but eventually I found I wasn't note worthy.
Jeff: I studied a long time to become a doctor, but--guess what?--I didn't have any patience.
Mutt: I got a job in a shoe factory; I tried, but I just didn't fit in.
Jeff: I became a professional fisherman, but discovered that I couldn't live on my net income.
Mutt: I thought about becoming a witch, so I tried that for a spell.

Jeff: Seriously?
Mutt: I managed to get a good job working for a pool maintenance company, but the work was just too draining.

Jeff: My last job was working at Starbucks, but I had to quit because it was always the same old grind.
Mutt: After many years of trying to find steady work, I finally got a job as a historian, until I realized there was no future in it.

Jeff: I tried working in a muffler factory once, but that was exhausting.
Mutt: Yeah, so is this.
Jeff: You got that right.
Mutt: Confucius had it right.
Jeff: Yeah, tell your boss what you think, and ...
Mutt: And?
Jeff:  The truth will set you free.

January 12, 2014

The Dead by Susan Mitchell

The Dead by Susan Mitchell

At night the dead come down to the river to drink.
They unburden themselves of their fears,
their worries for us. They take out the old photographs.
They pat the lines in our hands and tell our fortunes,
which are cracked and yellow.
Some dead find their way to our houses.
They go up to the attics.
They read the letters they sent us, insatiable
for signs of their love.
They tell each other stories.
They make so much noise
they wake us
as they did when we were children and they stayed up
drinking all night in the kitchen.