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Archive for September, 2011

Waywords Location #5: Wisconsin

September 26th, 2011

Wisconsin lies flat against the wide-mouthed Midwest sky. Once cornfields and dairy farms, mostly subdivision grids now. I have little to say about the place, except that there are some wonderful people living and working hard there. I was honoured to meet some of them via my Waywords typewriter project and my songs…

Madison is a pulsing University town built in spokes around the State Capital building. It huffs and puffs, struggles to make itself heard. I remember my father telling stories about student movements there in the sixties, how it was a liberal haven in the conservative Midwest. I was there on a quiet Saturday though and the loudest form of protest I could locate was a small community garden plot in front of the Capital. Tomatoes grow pretty quietly but say a lot.

I played a small club there then spent the next morning prowling the streets for a good used book store. I found it, complete with it’s fifty-something grey-haired owner, vinyl soundtrack, and shadowed light. I bought a book of poems and promised to come back next time. Bookstores are like pubs, you find your favourites in every city and always return.

I didn’t write anything in that town. Just walked and wandered and found those tomato plants.

 

"Waywords" is supported by the Nova Scotia Department of Culture & Heritage

 

Waywords Location #4: Kent State, Ohio

September 23rd, 2011

Leaving the warm arms of Angelica, New York wasn’t easy. Part of me wanted to stay among the farms and rivers of the Appalachians, the kindness of those newly made friends, and the far away feeling of safety that little town lent. But, as always, the road prodded me onward…

The long highways felt like drudgery that day. I knew where I was headed, but I ached to veer off the route for a while. So I did.

The story of the Kent State shootings has never left my mind since my mother first told me it. On May 4th 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd of students. Some were protesting the American invasion of Cambodia and others were merely observing nearby. Four were killed and nine injured. My mother was hitchhiking from California on her way east when the news reached them that the girlfriend of one of her traveling companions had died. Her name was Allison Krause and she was one of the students shot that day.

I crossed the Ohio State line and headed toward Kent. Why I am constantly drawn to mournful places of the past, I will never know…

May 4 Massacre Monument at Kent State University

Kent State is a large, bustling University. Young students rush by in herds, jovial and seemingly unaffected by the large monuments dotting the parking lot, each one marking the spot where one of the four were shot.

I walked for a long time around the black posts that marked the spots where those four kids died. Jack London once said: “The most beautiful stories always start with wreckage.” And thinking of those wasted young lives, I hoped earnestly that Jack was right.

The next day I flew to Chicago and drove to my gig in Madison, Wisconsin. I wrote this song and performed it for the first time live at Mother Fools in Madison that night. Here’s a clip:

"Waywords" is supported by the Nova Scotia Department of Culture & Heritage

Waywords Location #3: Angelica, New York

September 21st, 2011

I left New Hampshire in morning rain. The Interstates floated smoothly toward the foothills of the Appalachians, a bright mist cushioning each car in their mad rush west. The vital green hills whispered no warning of the ruin I was headed for, and I had no intuition.

Near Binghamton, New York, I-86 suddenly ended, its white ribbon roadway inundated with brown floodwaters bleeding from the Susquehanna River. 20,000 people had been evacuated from that town, and I drove right into it.

(I pause here to admit: I am often in my own universe while on tour. The taxing schedule, successive days of travel, and small community of my audience makes it hard to keep up with the news. When I drove into Binghamton, a deep guilt seeped into me… these thousands losing their homes and precious things, while I leaped from show to show, happily homeless.)

The detour off the Interstate forced me into Pennsylvania. Low-lying communities were drowned, houses unhinged and swimming aimlessly. Wild rivers marched under overpasses where roads belonged. Vast fields lay deluged, the tops of power poles just peeking above the surface.

After two long hours searching unsuccessfully for an open westbound road, I was deposited into a small Pennsylvania town with one gas station and one road passing through (crumbling into water ways at both ends). I was trapped…

It would take unlikely camaraderie with some backwoods mountain folk, a long journey over unmapped dirt farm roads, and risky evasion of road closure signs to get me out of that town and back on the highway toward my venue in Angelica, New York. I was grateful for the kindness of those strangers.

Angelica welcomed me with warmth and personality, and despite my being hours late for the show, demonstrated hospitality in the following days that reminded me of my home in the Maritimes.

I stayed in a tiny cabin on a farm and wrote many songs. Here’s one of them, performed on the porch of that cabin in Angelica, New York:

"Waywords" is supported by the Nova Scotia Department of Culture & Heritage

Waywords: Location #2 Easton, New Hampshire

September 12th, 2011

I left Boston with love on my mind. The thickness and shape of it. How it moulds to our hands, spills into ever fold of our skin, stays with us long after it is gone. I knew I would write a love song when I reached the White Mountains.

Along the way, I stopped for lunch and wrote this short piece:

I like forgotten places. The nook between a brick chimney and the wall, the strip of floor that stays dusty behind an opened door, the edge of bookshelves, too skinny for a book. Time lives in these places.

I remember a tiny inset shelf that lived above my mother’s bed. Only large enough to hold her alarm clock. The kind that ticked and tocked and rang like a bell at seven a.m. every morning. I used to sneak tiny pink stones into the corners next to that little clock.

I pulled off the highway to a slanted pizza shop hung with successive American flags.  Ordered a slice. The television spit out pictures of wild fires burning in Texas, rivers busting through the Midwest. Somewhere in Kansas, I thought, there must be good weather.

The brown vinyl booths glowed and hummed beneath yellow lamps, and while the rain sputtered outside, I longed to stay still, quiet. But Highway 302 pulled me forward into the pines, the White Mountains, the festooned riverbanks. I did not resist.

In New Hampshire, I placed my blue Olivetti in Wendle’s Deli in the tiny town of Franconia. The owner was hospitable and sent me off with a steaming black coffee.

With two days left before my show in nearby Easton, I went seeking words. Sometimes they fall from the eaves of old buildings and I just have to make sure I’m there to catch them. But I was unlucky that day. It rained. I found pianos on the street (The Piano Project), I found a black Underwood typewriter in a three-story antique store and I bought it. I found a cold bookstore with a wall full of Robert Frost. But the words didn’t come.

 

Where I stayed, there was a second-story painter’s studio with a piano in it. I sneaked up the stairs with my guitar and settled cross-legged in the centre of the large, window-lit room. Mysterious utensils of another art cluttered the shelves: brushes, sketchpads, photographs, un-stretched canvas, easels leaning like long-legged men resting against the wall. I peered down at my simple work tools: a composition book, a pencil, my guitar. Humbled. The piano winked from the corner and I went to it.

Here’s a short clip of the song I wrote that afternoon:

"Waywords" is supported by the Nova Scotia Department of Culture & Heritage

 

Waywords: Location 1 Cambridge, Massachusetts

September 8th, 2011

I took Interstate 95 south through Maine, then 93 into Massachusetts and the quaint center of Cambridge. I was headed there for a show at the legendary Club Passim, but I decided to enter town a day early to begin my “Waywords” writing project.

I arrived at an historical inn located near the venue. My room overlooked a cramped brick street and rows of other third-story rooftops. An oak table nestled its curved hips into the corner under a window. I would write there.

After settling in, I wandered down Massachusetts Avenue to Harvard Square, passing the Revolutionary War monument, Harvard Law School, places made of brick and stone, set deep into the earth as if to say: “We are the great Homo sapeins. We have been here.  And will be here.” The large minds of our time, and the young greats to come, roamed the hallowed streets in slouched leather deck shoes and rumpled chinos. And I roamed among them – the casually privileged.

With the humid heat of Boston breathing down my neck, I arrived at Club Passim to arrange my typewriter in the lobby. My blue Olivetti looked winsome and hopeful, donning a fresh sheet of long white paper and a sign explaining my mission. I typed the invitation at the head of the page: “What Kind of Creature Are You?”

Back at the inn, I tiptoed through the halls. An explorer. Family portraits (from an era long before smiling at a camera was accepted) dotted the heavily papered walls. Glass artifacts and silver utensils lined the walnut tables. A velvet hat teetered on the summit of a wooden hatstand. The past creaked and moaned beneath the carpet. Something of long ago still lived there…

The house was built in 1843, gifted to William Saunders’ son on his wedding day. William Junior married Mary Prentiss and lived with her there for a full fifty years. Somehow, as the story goes, things turned. Fortune frowned. Mary died suddenly and William, mired in debt, sold the house.

The legend says that William returned to the house nightly, sneaking through the back garden to Mary’s moss rose bushes. In grief, he plucked the blooms one by one until none remained. Although never caught, the branches’ stark nakedness confessed his nightly pilgrimage.

There were no roses when I arrived. And had not been, as I was told by the desk clerk through a Boston-tinged drawl, for nearly a century. The story stuck with me so I wrote a song about it. The following clip was recorded in my room at The Mary Prentiss Inn the morning I wrote “Mary’s Roses”.

 

"Waywords" is supported by the Nova Scotia Department of Culture & Heritage