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Posts Tagged ‘Folk Ghetto’

We headed south on our annual pilgrimage to visit my mother in South Carolina, listening to James Joyce’s “The Dead” on CD as we passed through Virginia. It’s a good story, and even my high school-age daughter, encountering it for the first time, enjoyed it greatly.

The story takes place in Dublin around the turn of the last century, the gaslight era. Most of the long short story takes place at a Christmas party thrown by two elderly aunts and their niece and describes in detail the food and music and each of the significant guests. It is a vivid slice of the culture of a time long since gone, and it evokes an even earlier time when things were better, always the same time, always our youth. Gabriel Conway, the nephew of the old ladies, and his wife Greta return to their hotel after the party, and misunderstand each other’s moods. He is feeling tender and amorous, while she is reminded by a song sung at the party of the early death of her teenage suitor, Michael Fury. He had stood ill in the rain in her garden as she prepared to leave him to go to Dublin and caught his death of cold.

As we listened to the story, we looked at the beautiful Virginia landscape beyond the windows, and I remembered my youth in the port town of Norfolk, on the southern coast of Virginia. I felt the waves of youthful nostalgia like “The Dead” seep over me, and images of the friends I had then and places we had been together came crowding back, while the Blue Ridge Mountains fell off to the left amid clouds, like Galway in Greta’s memory.

Norfolk is an old city by American standards, with the good harbor that has sheltered ships since before the Revolution. Some of its streets in the old section are made of cobblestone, and parts of the city are sinking into the rising bay. In a few decades, parts of Ghent and The Hague where I walked with friends along the waterfront may be submerged at high tide, the water lapping at the museum steps.

I remember a Christmas party like the one in “The Dead” when I was 19 that took place in an old, tall house that had been turned into apartments on Fairfax Avenue near the museum. It was always cold in the big high-ceilinged rooms where Sam and Kit and their baby lived, the slumlord saving pennies keeping the oil furnace low. Richard lived in a small room up the stairs, and all of their friends from the Folk Ghetto were invited, the musicians and the waitresses, and there was singing and the air was blue with smoke. My brother and I were in the kitchen with a number of friends and guests, including the young woman who now reminds me of my own Michael Fury, as she stood dark and fading in the kitchen light.

I recall that my brother and I were acting out the opening scene from Cyrano De Bergerac, the swordfight scene, to much laughter, and the folk music from the other room was coming through the kitchen door. Richard was leaving in a few days for basic training and then for Vietnam. A dozen of us walked out into the street along the gray waters of The Hague, arm-in-arm, singing Christmas carols as the snow fell on our bare heads. I see them, old friends, fading ghostly under the old fashioned street lamps, shadows on the snow.

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I was listening to the Folk Show on the radio the other morning on the way into town.  The songs sounded good, one tune after another telling stories about our life and times – stories about working down in the coal mine or walking the picket line; sad tales and heroic tales; the bitterness of class and poverty; standing up and standing together. I guess you could dance to a few of the tunes if you wanted, but for the most part you just listen and nod your head.

When I was a senior in high school and for a couple of years afterward, there was a café  downtown, in Norfolk, Va., that we would go to on weekends to listen to live music. The Folk Ghetto was down an alleyway, a smoky, crowded room with a couple of dozen round tables and a small stage.  You could see the light spilling out of the open door and hear the music pouring out as you walked up the street and turned down the alley. It was like Bob Dylan sang in “Tangled Up in Blue” – “There was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air.”

And there was revolution in the air: The free speech movement out at Berkeley; Mark Rudd and company occupying the administration building at Columbia; sit-ins and be-ins; Martin Luther King and the March on Washington. It had not yet all turned ugly, though the tide of optimism was beginning to falter. Within two or three years the revolution would beach itself like a broken whale on the low tide.

But we were still in that state of innocence where we could go to a place like the Folk Ghetto, drink coffee for hours, and get lost in an acoustic guitar and a pure voice.  One of the singers who made the rounds of East Cost folk clubs was Emmylou Harris, the singer/songwriter whose career is still going strong. But most of the other singers who never went on to fame were just as talented. They were a few years older than my friends and I, and seemed infinitely cooler and smarter. But we were really not that far apart. Folk singers remain close to the realities that they write and sing about. There are more lonesome whistles than limousines in the folk world.

It was the times, but it was also our time. Being seventeen made everything seem sharp-edged and flooded with meaning.  Every lyric was a tool to pry into the problems of our teenage being and the chaos of events around us. We were chiseling ourselves out of rough stone until the figure could emerge that would carry us into the future. It hurt to be seventeen, but music transmuted the pain into something like ecstasy.

So we would go on a Friday or a Saturday night to listen to Gove Scrivener or Paul Decker play guitar and try out the new songs they had written or picked up from somebody’s obscure album. We fell in love with the female singers with their long dark hair, and envied the musicians in blue jeans and denim shirts who could chat them up so easily.

Everything was new and music made it richer, more unforgettable. We remember where we were when some tragic event took place, but we also know where we were when we heard that great tune for the first time. We were in our car or at the beach when that crashing chord came down. Or at a table in a smoky club when revolution was in the air.

It’s a never ending project, chipping away at that rough stone of our lives to make the person we ought to be. Songs drift out of the radio or the IPod in our pocket, telling stories of other lives, other times. We take the lyrics that cut us deepest and, young or old, chip away the stone.

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