Seeing God in the storm

Earlier in this 21st century, my wife and I worked at Baylor University for several years. While we lived in Waco, the Reverend Dr. Charles Treadwell, known and loved as “Father Chuck,” was our family’s rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. A few years after we moved away from Texas, Father Chuck was called to St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin, where he is now their rector. Chuck was and is an extraordinary preacher, so I’m accustomed to hearing a fine homily from him, but this sermon is something special even for him (which is truly saying something). Delivered on February 28, 2021, just after the crushing ice storm and subsequent infrastructure collapse across much of Texas, this sermon moves me in ways I can’t completely articulate. There’s the poetry of the meditation itself, an extended journey into a metaphor that just gets richer as the journey goes on. There’s the evident emotion in Chuck’s voice and delivery, emotion that originates with him but communicates–enacts a kind of communion, in fact–with great effectiveness across the miles and cultures. There’s also, and this I found most surprising, the way in which the medium allowed me to see what he was seeing in a very intense fashion. It felt as if I was seeing with him, standing beside him as we saw the scene together. It was a bit uncanny, and even remembering it here brings that feeling back with surprising power.

As you’ll see when you watch the video (and I do hope you will), the effect would not have been the same if we had been in the room with Father Chuck. The virtual space created by the video actually made me feel closer to the moment than I would have felt if I had been physically co-located with Father Chuck during the sermon. Or at least it seems so to me.

And finally: whatever your own religious beliefs, or if you have no religious beliefs at all, or even perhaps if you feel a strong antipathy to the very idea of religious beliefs, I think you will find some connection here, some warmth and illumination during the very dark days so many of us have walked through during the last … oh, I think I’ve lost track of the extent of the darkness, to tell you the truth. But this sermon helps me keep track of the light.

So in that spirit, I offer you this meditation from Father Chuck. I hope it will be a benefit, and maybe even a blessing, for you.

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Live in the before-time

Live at the Visual Art Studio, September 6, 2019. Robin McLeod electric guitar, Louis Schwartz amplified acoustic guitar, Gardner Campbell bass, Dave Ellis percussion. Composition and recording: Louis Schwartz. Mastering: Gardner Campbell.

To date my only gig with Aurika. The regular bass player returned for the next months’ gigs, and just when it looked like a sub-spot might come my way again, it was pandemic time.

I have vivid memories of playing this night. The venue was small and the four of us were pretty tightly assembled in the corner next to the shop window that looks out on Broad Street, just a few blocks down from VCU. When you’re that close together, listening is not just listening, and getting the feel of a jam is not just a metaphor.

About 5:36 into the track something starts to happen. I heard something in Louis’ playing, a little arc of a plaintive melody. A little yearning moment. Robin was mirroring the arc in a descant. Dave started to leave more space for the melodies, focusing on the backbeat, and then did a quick little fill. And that’s when I knew, I felt it: I will help to shape this moment, now.

5:48. I start to go up chromatically, higher and higher, with more rapid notes. And as I do this, I hear that we have all heard what I have heard, and that we all know, right then, that we will shape this moment, now. Hammering ostinatos in the guitars, crushing tight chords, percussion focusing and reinforcing what I’m doing, up we go, and I hear it again: I will help to shape the end of this moment.

I play three long descending notes as Robin and Louis trill on either end of the hinged moment. Dave hears exactly what I’m doing, moves from one more measure of flurried notes to a strong and final

One

Two

Three….

Then a pickup eighth note and we’re back in.

6:12-6:13 or so, and the moment is done. Robin’s trills ascend and we follow.

I remember this moment happening. I remember the decisions I made, and when I made them, and yet it also sounds to me now as if my decisions were coming from somewhere else. It’s not just that we were all playing together, all listening together. I feel as if we all heard one thing, and by playing along, we transcribed what we heard into what we played. That seems a very fanciful description–very woo-woo, as I read it now. But you tell me: how can I have been there, and done that, and remember doing that, yet feel such a mystery about the agency of it all?

It was indeed an ecstasy, a standing beside myself.

I hope you can hear at least a little of that as you listen.

To Louis, Robin, Dave, to the Visual Art Studio, and to a warm September evening on Broad Street in Richmond, Virginia: my thanks. May we meet again in the aftertimes.

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The little things

Let’s back up a couple of days, and review the last sentence of this comment. The words are Alan Levine’s.

Yes, they do. I keep thinking about these small acts, the good mornings and the readys and the proceeds and the one I asked them to do just yesterday in my film class: CUT! We were beginning the lesson on editing, which means we were going to learn about the most common way of joining two shots together: the cut. Turns out this powerful editing method is also nearly impossible to see, until you train your eyes–what my film students this term are calling their “film eyes”–to see them. (Any symbolic meaning there is purely intentional, but blame the universe, not me.)

I think about these small acts in at least two ways: filling the tapestry, and establishing ritual.

“Filling the tapestry” comes from Alfred Hitchcock, who spoke of this concept in an interview with Francois Truffaut. Truffaut had asked Hitchcock about a bystander in a particular shot, a woman at the side of the frame who was eating an apple. No lines, and no other action. Just eating an apple.

F. Truffaut: [Y]our pictures are very elaborate throughout….

A. Hitchcock: They’re elaborate in an oblique way; yes, they are.

F.T.: They’re so elaborate that it’s difficult to believe that these things just happen to be in your films. If so, they must be credited to a powerful cinematic instinct. Here’s another instance of what I mean: When [in I Confess] Montgomery Clift leaves the courtroom, he is surrounded by a hostile crowd of people in a lynching mood. And just behind Clift, next to Otto Keller’s lovely wife, who is obviously upset, we see a … woman eating an apple, and looking on with an expression of malevolent curiosity.

A.H. That’s absolutely right; I especially worked that woman in there; I even showed her how to eat that apple.

F.T. Well, what I’m trying to bring out is that these elaborate details are generally overlooked by the public because all the attention is focused on the major characters in the scene. Therefore, you put them in for your own satisfaction and, of course, for the sake of enriching the film.
A.H. Well, we have to do those things; we fill the whole tapestry, and that’s why people often feel they have to see the picture several times to take in all of these details. Even if some of them appear to be a waste of effort, they strengthen a picture. That’s why, when these films are reissued several years later, they stand up so well; they’re never out of date.

These small acts are a way of filling the tapestry. And of course by filling the tapestry, students begin to see that this required course, this course that fit their schedule, this course that they parachuted into willy-nilly and never thought for a moment would be anything other than coursework and a grade … might well be a tapestry. A tapestry that they have helped to fill.

The other way I have learned to think about these small acts is that they are rituals. Motifs. Reminders. The rituals locate us in time and space, especially for those moments in which we are together there. (For a synchronous Zoom meeting, we are certainly together in time and space even if we are not in the same physical room.) The rituals also give us a strong set of shared experiences that are not tasks so much as they are acknowledgments and preparations. Like a nod of recognition, or a smile at a neighbor as you go out to check the mailbox, or the greeting I used to give the folks at the pizza place where I’d get my lunchtime slice in the before-time, these are rituals. Some are small, and some are mighty. Some rituals transcend being, some concentrate being, and some do both. Rituals are both intimate and utterly transpersonal.

The key, as I have learned from my friend Louis, is kavanah. That’s the Hebrew word for ritual that’s fully inhabited, fully meant, and thus fully meaningful. Kavanah is the energy coursing through our good mornings and our readys and our intro music and our farewell gifts.

Do the students realize all of these things? I don’t speak about such things directly, or even hint at them much. I’m sure some of them never notice. I’m also sure some of them do … and I know for sure that I do. And if I’m the only one feeling the kavanah on a particular day, it’s still what I yearn to feel, because I know it makes me a better teacher.

So I ask for kavanah, and I seek to fill the tapestry, and I want us to do that together. I ask for a good morning. I require an avatar. And lately, I’ve come to insist that anyone who blogs in my courses must have a tagline for their blog site. We’re nearly at midterm, and there are still some students who have the default tagline on their RamPage: “Just another Rampages.us site.” I bet I’ve asked my students five or six times to change those taglines to something else. I’ve emailed them with instructions. I’ve been stern but kind, like Maria in The Sound of Music.

But the kids are alright. (I can call them “kids” at my age, can’t I? With affection, never with condescension. I often envy them, after all.) Many of them have already caught on. Many of them have learned from each other’s examples. And there’s time, plenty of time, for everyone to fill the tapestry. I won’t forget.

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Rhymes through time

At the beginning of the end of the first part of the pandemic, last May, Gerry Bayne of EDUCAUSE contacted me for an interview. What did I think about the sudden shift to online learning during the lockdown? In the interview, a sudden metaphor came to me, as I heard in my mind the Dire Straits song “Skateaway,” from Making Movies.

“Making movies … on location.”

Last night Diego Real, a colleague in Colombia whom I met in Vancouver back in 2009 at my first Open Education conference, sent out this tweet about my post from yesterday. He articulates the movie-making metaphor much better than I had.

Yes: “Learning as storytelling, like a movie in which everyone is the protagonist.”

George Orwell observed that what we want even more than to be loved is to be understood. Across many miles, and in a strange loop of time, I feel not only understood, but better able to understand. And for that I am grateful. Thank you, Diego. The Internet still works its magic, because there are still magicians like you, doing their work. Thank you for making magic, on location.

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Online Class meeting preshow

I’ve always tried to make the beginnings of my class meetings special, to set the stage for the learning encounter that will follow. When classes are separated by 10 minutes and students linger after class (as I welcome and hope they will), that sometimes means that the teacher I follow or the teacher who follows me in that physical location doesn’t have time to get the stage set the way we’d like.

With my online class meetings, that’s not a problem–one of the things I’ve come to love about teaching online.

So I begin admitting students into the Zoom space only after I’ve shared a screen with the title slide for the day. I choose a background for the title slide to set the tone for the day, intellectually or emotionally or ideally both. I also play a song or two so there’s music playing as the students become present in the Zoom space. I start it all up two or three minutes (or more, depending on the length of the song) before the time scheduled for the meeting, so students enter the immersive world of our meeting with the world already in place. Then, once we’ve pretty much all gathered together (I often wait a minute or two past the meeting start time, because I know it can take a few seconds to join the Zoom space), I greet the students with some (hopefully) lively patter, a bit of an overview of the day’s work, maybe a weather report in my radio voice if I’m feeling daffy. Finally, to get us properly started, I ask all the students to wish each other good morning or good afternoon or happy Tuesday (again, depending on my mood, and theirs) into the chat.

So we’re all together in the world that preceded our arrival, and we’ve all sent good wishes to each other in a way that would never be possible in a physical co-location, and we’ve got some music in our minds and a bit of a daffy welcome from the prof. Then there’s often some class business, reminders, etc. And then, when I shift gears into the main lesson for the day, I say, “so if you’re ready for (whatever it is we’ll be doing), please type “ready” in the chat. Almost always, I’ll tell them what a thrill it is to see that beautiful cascade of readiness (and reaaaddddy!!!!! and woohoo let’s go!! and whatever they feel moved to type) pour down the chat window.

Thus, mutually strengthened for the work ahead, we enter the lesson together.

As a bonus, the title slides from each lesson become a dandy scrapbook, a little souvenir of each meeting. I’ve taken to using these as a montage sequence in the little farewell video I make for the last day of class, the day we each bring to the class a digital “farewell” gift.

Here’s a little gallery of some recent title slides. Looking back, I see some are more graphically effective than others, but they all get the job done, at least. And when I make my little farewell montage for the last day of class, a little movie I run in Zoom (typically with a little fair-use song as a soundtrack), these slides, along with screenshots of RamPage sites and avatars from our discussion Forum, are a reminder of the journey we’ve completed. I can say farewell and, with each student’s avatar onscreen at one point or another, I’m rolling the credits too.

Click to view slideshow.
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Choice. Complexity, Literacy, Fluency

It’s been bittersweet and a tremendous education reading Tom Woodward’s series of “Long Goodbye” posts following his departure from VCU’s ALT Lab for a new position at Middlebury College. I’m part of the story, in the early going anyway, so I can hardly pretend (and won’t try to pretend) I don’t have a personal connection to the ongoing narrative. But it’s also fascinating to read how Tom thinks about the work he’s done and the work he will now do in a new setting. It’s something like a memoir, something like a journal, something like a set of comments in an long piece of computer code. Maybe something like an operating manual, too, though Tom’s a fine teacher and understands that in the end no set of instructions offers simple answers to complex questions.

The most recent post outlines Tom’s philosophy of design for WordPress-based learning environments. It’s an extraordinary post, maybe the best look I’ve ever had at Tom’s conceptual frameworks, which is saying something given that I worked very closely with Tom for nearly three years.

Tom was the one who taught me the phrase “low threshold, high ceiling” as a way to think about platforms and affordances that offered powerful results right away but could be extended, deepened, and refined into much more complex and sophisticated environments if one had the skills and interest to do so. I do think one can learn to want to want things, so skills and interest can be developed over time, but it’s a long journey and people learn at different rates. It’s just that I wish we could develop a consensus about the need for that journey and that learning, as we’ve obviously done for readig and writing.

It won’t surprise you to know that I think of language as the quintessential “low threshold, high ceiling” medium in our lives. It also won’t surprise you that I strongly believe that facility (or literacy or fluency, pick a word) with language uniquely empowers one not only to communicate effectively but also to imagine one’s own being, and that of others as well, more profoundly.

The alternative would be to have a phrase book in your pocket with 100 easy-to-use phrases that describe common needs and desires. For the rest, you’d have to point and grunt, gesticulate somehow, etc.

And the thing about striking out on a hard but rewarding journey of learning facility with language is that you’ll also be learning more about all the things language does (some of them will surprise you) and all the things it might do (which is where your voice comes in). That’s the meta-layer I prize very highly in all learning. You learn something and at the same time learn something about what it is to learn that thing, about the deeper implications of that thing, about why it matters and how it might be more deeply and beautifully experienced. You learn facility with language and the world turns into a more high-definition experience. I think the high-definition world awaits our facility with language and does not result from it, but we don’t have to engage in a debate about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to agree that there’s a unique richness of experience that one gains access to when one learns to read and write. And part of that richness is what happens when you’re able to share that experience with someone else, and they with you.

So when Tom puts this great image in his post, you might imagine where it takes my thoughts:

For me, having to work through the choices and complexity of something farther out to the right of that continuum means that one will learn not only how to make the Web do more intricate and sophisticated things, but also what “intricate” and “sophisticated” and “Web” mean in terms of this pervasive global light-speed telecommunications environment, a new medium. You learn how to speak Web without a phrase book. And because higher education never really made that leap of learning, and in many cases fought it, we have neither taught our students well nor set a good example ourselves regarding the most powerful communication medium our species has ever built, aside from writing and perhaps even language itself. And the real tragedy is that we might have, and we nearly did, somewhere around the dawn of the widespread Web in the mid-1990s.

I’m on record as saying the sweet spot is somewhere around that “domain of one’s own” area. I was challenged early on by folks who thought that asking people in general (let alone faculty) to run a server of their own was simply asking too much. Maybe that’s true. (I once gave a talk at a school that was running a Domain of One’s Own initiative, and as near as I could tell, only one of the faculty leaders actually had a domain of their own. Depressing but true.) But the core idea, then and now, was that until or unless people had to establish their own address on the Web, they would never feel at home there, and thus never feel empowered or responsible in the way that homeowners must perforce learn to be. To use Tom’s analogy, “you are in a rented apartment and you are not allowed to paint the walls. You can be evicted at any point for any reason and have no recourse.” But of course people want to be on the Web anyway, because we’re social and it’s fun and you can also do work on the Web. So we give ourselves to the landlords, where as it turns out, again quoting Tom, “You pay with your content and by giving them data.”

It is true that building a home on the World Wide Web with your own URL and your own server space can feel like terraforming Mars at first (I’ve been watching The Expanse lately), so maybe the best of all possible worlds, for now, is to have RamPages demonstrate, again and again, what’s possible, and thus extend the range of what’s desirable and imaginable. In that sense, RamPages is much more than a proof of concept. It passed that stage long ago. RamPages is the Zone of Proximal Development. And it is that in large part because Tom Woodward built it that way.

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A non-prescription prescription for students

Everyone’s clamoring for critical thinking, bull**** detectors, methodologies for checking sources, increased media literacy, and the like. These are all laudable efforts, so far as they go, but the great paradox of our time is that exhortations to independent thought and cries of “do your own research” seem just about as likely to lead to crazy conspiracy theories as to fact and truth.

I have been thinking for several years about the idea of “dispositions,” the third term in the education trio of “knowledge, skills, and dispositions.” It’s the mysterious member of that set, but also I think the one that, more than reason itself, is the charioteer (to recall the famous analogy from Plato).

Today I ran across these words from George MacDonald, quoted in a delightful anthology of reviews and essays by C. S. Lewis (many of them not collected before, and new to me) called Image and Imagination.  The quotation appears in a note, presumably by the volume’s editor, Walter Hooper, explaining a moment in Lewis’s encomium for W. P. Ker. Here’s the quotation, from MacDonald’s 1867 essay “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture”:

The right teacher would have his pupil easy to please, but ill [that is, hard] to satisfy; ready to enjoy, unready to embrace; keen to discover beauty, slow to say, “Here I will dwell.”

Obviously the above is not an infallible prescription for sifting disinformation from fact and truth. This is perhaps the whole point. No single investigative or evaluative methodology will suffice, not a four- or five-step program for fact-checking, nor the practice of “interrogation” (what a terrifying word) as one seeks to know what’s real. No methodology will suffice, though many methods may be valuable. In the end, one also needs something like the rhythms MacDonald articulates. One needs a certain poised readiness as well as a certain practiced reluctance, and likewise, a practiced readiness and a poised reluctance. These are attitudinal or dispositional orientations, or commitments, or (one might even say) spiritual disciplines.

They are also difficult and exhausting. But in a polarized culture in which hostilities are always one interrogation away from erupting into war, or worse, I think MacDonald’s blend of cautious hospitality and wise forbearance is worth considering as a valuable approach to many things, literary criticism as well as friendship and yes, one’s disposition as one reads or views or hears the latest piece of persuasion.

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Scott Ross on perseverance

“15 months, 98 sessions, and some 8,000 takes”: that’s the tally Zachary Woolfe offers in his recent New York Times profile of harpsichordist Scott Ross, who would have turned 70 on March 1 this year. Those marathon figures describe one mammoth recording project: the complete sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Ross achieved his goal with the release of a 34 CD set of these recordings in 1988.  The set was reissued in 2014 by Warner Classics. An artist I had a long conversation with in the fall of 2019 spoke to me of her love for Scarlatti, which led me to Lucas DeBargue’s great piano performances of Scarlatti. Soon I learned that DeBarque’s Scarlatti was by his own admission heavily influenced by Scott Ross , whose performances DeBarque calls “without compare” and “definitive.”

I found the 2014 Ross collection for a very reasonable price, and Christmas 2019 revealed this treasure, ready for the listening, beneath our family’s Christmas tree.

I’m a little sad when I think of that 2019 Christmas. It was the last Christmas we celebrated with my father-in-law, who passed away about a month later. It was also the last time my whole family could be together, as Christmas 2020 was in pandemic time, and the very first time we did not celebrate with our children Ian and Jenny–at least, not in the same physical location. (I am very grateful to Zoom for the reunion we did have.)

Reading the article on Scott Ross, I feel something has come full circle, and I have hope despite the long chill fingers of despair and isolation that seem to have had us all in their grip for so long. Woolfe ends his article with Ross’s words from an interview just before he died, and I am reminded that even one so impatient as I may nevertheless endure what must yet be:

“I have a quality — a vice, perhaps,” he says. “It’s called perseverance, which isn’t the same thing as patience. Patience I don’t possess, but perseverance? You’re talking to someone who recorded 555 Scarlatti sonatas. Well, that didn’t require any patience. I have no patience for anything whatsoever.”

See you tomorrow.

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In which Horton Barker is a rabbit hole

I do believe Barker would chuckle at the title. I hope so. Sandy Paton’s liner notes for Horton Barker, Traditional Singer paint a vivid portrait of Barker’s keen inventive mind:

There’s no stopping him — Horton Barker, sightless since childhood as the result of an accident, Horton Barker is filled with an irrepressible sense of humor.
Even the cane he uses to help him find his way about is given a name and a personality. “I’ll just hitch ‘Old Morgan’ here on the doorknob while we eat. ” “Old Morgan” does considerably more than let Horton know when he’s approaching
a step or an obstacle. He listens to the echo of the tapping metal tip and can surprise you with what it tells him. For instance, he told me when we were passing a car parked fifteen feet or more to one side of our path. As a boy, he would jump off of a cliff into eighty feet of water and then swim back to the base of the cliff, locating it by the echo of a clicking noise made with his tongue.

I wrote yesterday about listening to this recording. Today I’ve been musing over another strong delight: Sandy Paton’s lively, empathetic prose. So I decided to find out a few things about Sandy Paton … and discovered two obituaries (both in English newspapers) that described an artist of enormous talent whose devotion to folk music led him through a life of what I can only call great philanthropic value–a life characterized by the love of humanity.

Founded in 1961 by two families–Sandy and Caroline Paton, a married couple, and Lee Haggerty and Lee’s sister Mary–Folk-Legacy Records was acquired in late 2019 by the Smithsonian Institution’s Folkway Records.

Turns out Caroline Paton was herself a folksinger of no small accomplishment. She and Sandy concertized frequently and put out several records themselves, though it seems Sandy was always a little reluctant to use his own label to release family recordings.

As a student of language and a lover of words, I’ve been looking through some of the liner notes (which Folkways has wisely made available as free downloads) to the Folk-Legacy Records releases. The notes to the Sandy and Caroline Paton albums are a kind of episodic memoir, sometimes combining the written voices of Sandy and Caroline in a way hardly less fascinating and pleasing than their voices lifted together in song.

A sample, from the liner notes to their first album for Folk-Legacy, Sandy and Caroline Paton, released in 1966:

BIOGRAPHICAL DATA
For those of you who don’t know· us who buy this album “cold”, so to speak – I guess we ought to write something about who we are and how we got this way. Now, I’m usually the one who gets paid for writing notes around here, but, in the past nine years, I’ve gradually begun to get it through my head that it’s an unwise husband who presumes to speak for his wife. I have, therefore, asked Caroline to tell you about herself:

“I grew up in Whiting, Indiana, an industrial suburb of Chicago. Two poets who grew up there, David Wagoner and Jim Hazard, have sometimes turned their critical gaze upon their old home town, and the resulting poems describe Whiting better than I can. I understand that David’s poem, “A Valedictory to Standard Oil of Indiana,” published in the New Yorker (January 1, 1966), caused quite a sensation back home. He now lives in Washington State, and Jim is living in Wisconsin, so it seems that Whiting is the kind of place one might prefer to contemplate from a distance.

“I am the eldest of four children in a closely-knit family. Although my mother has been ill for many years, we had a wonderful family life. This was largely due to the hard work and remarkable temperament of my father, Reuben A. Swenson. He has been a research chemist at American Oil (the new name for Standard Oil) ever since he finished college, and for years he came home from work to start dinner and put clothes in the washer. Dad had to be both parents to the four of us; he is of hearty Swedish-Ameri­can stock, and had energy and patience equal to the task. He felt that household responsibilities should not keep us from our schoolwork or extra-curricular activities, and he gave us the freedom to develop many interests.

“I first became interested in folk music at summer camps where I was a counselor, and by the time I started college this interest was well-established. After two years at Oberlin I transferred to the University of Chicago, where I got a B.A. I also took off six months from school to go to a work camp in Europe under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee….”

And on it goes, for pages, wry and insightful and sincere and often hilarious. Even the jacket notes are that way, written by Lee Haggerty about the “shotgun” he had to buy to persuade Sandy to make the record.

Here’s a little more, as Sandy describes the song notes that follow his introduction:

THE SONGS
(Caroline and I collaborated on the following notes, but I have an incorrigible tendency to write in the first person, singular, which explains the occasional shift from “we” to “I” and back again. I (we) hope this won’t be too disconcerting.)

And this from Caroline to introduce “Dry Bed,” one of the Patons’ most-requested songs in concert:

Side I; Band 7. I WOKE UP IN A DRY BED
Here is positive proof, as if any were needed, that the great Woody Guthrie could write a song about anything. Please note that the correct title is simply “Dry Bed”,
something we neglected to do before sending the jacket copy off to the printer. Marjorie Guthrie Cooper told us that Woody wrote this song for Arlo, his son, sometime before 1952, when it was first published by Ludlow Music, Inc. The changes we have made in the text evolved, quite by accident, over the years we have been singing the song. We apologize for them, and strongly urge that the listener learn the correct text, which may be found in Folk Sing, edited by Herbert Haufrecht and published by Hollis Music, Inc., in 1959 (reprinted in 1961).

I woke up in a dry bed; Mommy, come see.
I woke up in a dry bed; Daddy, I did.
I woke up in a dry bed, dry feet and a dry head;
I am a big boy now.
Hey, look at my dry bed;
Come feel my dry bed.
My bed’s all dry, dry;
I’m a big boy.

The entire recording, we learn from Sandy, was made in the dead of night:

The recording sessions were held at night, out of absolute necessity. Ours is a ten-party telephone line, but our neighbors are mostly farmers, which means that no one uses it after ten P.M. Our two boys are naturally noisy, and my Malemutes are inclined to join in on choruses at unpredictable times, so we had to wait until all were asleep before we could record without danger of interruption. These sessions proved to be both grueling and hilarious. For instance, Caroline and I once decided that we had taken a particular song too fast and very carefully recorded it again. Timing the two takes later, we discovered that the difference between them was exactly one second out of a total of two hundred and seventy. I’m not even sure, now, which one we ended up using, but I do know that the second run-through sure seemed a lot slower than the first. Often we would get takes that I considered acceptable, at least, and Caroline would find something wrong with them, and vice versa. At last, we both realized that we were agonizing over the “infinity complex” that frequently plagues artists of all kinds. Under its influence, a man can go on working on the same painting for years and never consider it finished; there is always one little detail that needs reworking. This is the compulsion to perfection that can keep paintings hanging indefinitely in an artist’s studio, novels in manuscript form, or whittle huge blocks of well-seasoned walnut into elaborately carved toothpicks. It’s a damnable disease.

There are twenty-three single-spaced pages of this stuff. Lyrics, certainly, but primarily notes, writing so full of character that it amounts to a third layer of accompaniment for the guitar and singing.

And then of course there’s the music. You can hear samples on the Smithsonian site. I encourage you to do that now, if you haven’t already.

Sandy Paton passed away in July, 2009. Caroline Paton passed away almost a decade later, in March, 2019. Her obituary led me to this short video from 1975, a moving portrait of the Patons’ life and work together:

And for a lagniappe, to bring us back to Horton Barker, here’s something quite astonishing: an Artificial Intelligence-based musical video remix of Barker’s “Wondrous Love.” From the French composer Benoit Carré. Perhaps not to all tastes, but that it even exists is a wonder to me. (And I freely confess I find it weirdly compelling, an uncanny representation of part of how I feel when I listen to the original recording.)

 

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Horton Barker

Every now and then I hear a voice that makes me grateful for embodiment itself, dangerous and disappointing as this mortal vessel can be sometimes. Early September 2019, just a few weeks before embodiment turned treacherous as the pandemic took hold, I heard such a voice.

I was watching Festival, a documentary about the Newport Folk Festival. I’m not often enthusiastic about the folk music revival of the 1960s, but this film was different somehow. Perhaps it was the sheer variety of folk and their musics. Perhaps it was the folksong “clinic” Bob Dylan turned up for, before he had become Bob Dylan. Without a doubt, it was hearing Son House talk about the blues, and hearing Mike Bloomfield talk about Son House. I’d say it was impossible to top those voices. Anytime I hear Son House sing, I hear the music of the spheres.

There was, though, and to my surprise, an equally revelatory moment, when a blind Appalachian singer named Horton Barker stepped up to sing “Pretty Sally.” It was a very brief moment, only an excerpt, but I knew instantly I had heard something bright with meaning. I knew I had been changed.

The next day I started a Wikipedia article on Horton Barker, and began to do some research on his life and art. The article is still a stub–I have not yet incorporated the information I was able to find (more than I had expected to find, in fact)–but the article was born in time to be linked to by the announcement of a University of Virginia folksong archive, newly opened to streaming access. (Perhaps that should be my epitaph: “Here lies Gardner Campbell. He was born in time to be linked to.”)

Months passed, and I kept thinking about Horton Barker. For Christmas 2020, I ordered the original Smithsonian Folkways album from a Discogs seller. It’s in near-mint condition, still in its shrink wrap, its stout jacket and apparently mimeographed typewritten booklet perfectly intact. And for those who don’t have turntables, the album is available as a custom CD and as a digital download from the Folkways site.

Yesterday I put the record on and listened to the first two tracks, “Wayfaring Stranger” and ‘Wondrous Love.”

Then I had to stop. My cheeks were wet with tears and I needed to process what I had just experienced. In his blindness, with a pure tenor voice and an Appalachian accent much like the ones I heard growing up and still hear in my voice today, Horton Barker sings each song as if he wrote it himself, mingling luminous intensity and joyful exuberance, with the precise aim of striking my soul with glory, as this music has evidently struck his.

People speak idly of “technology.” Yesterday I visited the dead. Or was rather a visitation from life beyond life, lifting me from the grave, raising me so I, too, can sing on?

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