…and there never was a horse like the Tennesse Stud…

The death of folk and bluegrass great Doc Watson has prompted everyone from NPR to small-club musicians to play some of the man’s wonderful songs. His version of “Tennessee Stud” is often the chosen gem. I keep waiting, but so far I’ve not heard or read anyone mentioning the author of that song–Jimmy Driftwood.

Not to take anything away from Watson, but Jimmy Driftwood (1907-98) and his 6,000-plus songs gave more to American folk music than pretty much anyone else. (Yup, that’s right: 6,000 songs written.) His real name was James Corbitt Morris, according to the excellent entry about him in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

Jimmy Driftwood (fans always called him by both names)  was a poet and a teacher by trade, and teach us he did. In preserving folk songs of the Ozark Mountains region by performing the ones passed from generation to generation, and writing more in the same vein, he set important history of early America in amber.

I grew up listening to his albums, and on long car trips, I still sing the one that starts this way:

I’m just a Damyankee way down in the South
I love to kiss Southern belles in the mouth
I laugh when they say all Damyankees are bad
For nobody knows I’m a Damyankee Lad.

And after several verses,  it closes out with:

When I get so old that I’m ready to die
I’ll put on my uniform blue as the sky
They’ll march ’round my coffin and won’t they get mad
When they learn that I was a DamnYankee Lad.


My voice isn’t pretty, but neither was his.




Posted in: Art |

Etta James (1938-2012): A voice that no sorrow could muffle.

Etta James died January 2o.

James had a lot of demons: heroin and cocaine to name two. Her lifelong partner–music–got her through it. She sang through hard times, good times, in sickness and in health. She was enormously gifted, hilariously raunchy and tough enough to make it in a world notoriously unkind to women of color. She was fifteen when she recorded “Roll With Me Henry” and she never looked back.

Rest in Peace, Etta James.



Posted in: Art |

Writers in passing: Hugh Prather, Norris Church Mailer.

Two deaths reported in The New York Times give me pause. Both were considered accidental authors by their critics. Both found their gifts in unusual ways.

Hugh Prather wrote Notes to Myself as a journal in the early 1970s; it was a surprise bestseller. Norris Church Mailer was a fashion model who married Norman Mailer when he was more than twice her age. While insisting she was no intellectual, Ms. Mailer created fine art, theater and prose that showed intelligence and spirit.

Prather came from privilege and discovered his literary and artistic talent through manual labor; Ms. Mailer climbed out of childhood poverty as a beauty-pageant contestant and became the glue in the lives of the much-married writer, her two sons and seven stepchildren.

Both artists used inner strengths to empower countless others. Prather was the first contemporary journal writer I read, and his gentle reflections helped me make the feminism of my twenties part of my heart, not just my rhetoric. Ms. Mailer I came to admire in middle age, for her ability to be both helpmeet and writer–in the shade of Norman Mailer’s massive ego and talent, yet.

The notion that writers should “empower” us is a relatively new requirement. Literature and memoir were not always evaluated for this ability. There’s a certain flimsiness to the idea, since it bases the value of a piece of writing on how it makes us feel, period. A key manner in which new books are publicly valued relies on tabulating the number of people who buy into the hype of impending empowerment, then buy the book.

There are, though, other measures of a book’s power over us. The test of time, for one. The books that stay shelved in one’s inner library do matter, often for reasons beyond craft or depth. And the “back story” of a book has power too. For all the celebrity and success around her, Ms. Mailer rarely had a real Room of Her Own. She was always a writer with a hyphen: wife-and-writer, mother-and-writer. She too was someone for this feminist to learn from, and admire.

“Cry to Heaven” by Anne Rice

“Cry to Heaven” (Knopf) came out in 1982 and it is the first Anne Rice work I’ve read. It’s rich and brilliant, the story of 17th century castrati, castrated males with unearthly, beautiful voices. These revered artists were courted by the Vatican and high society, but were also outcasts: eunuchs who existed in an excruciating gender limbo surrounded by complicated societal mores and attitudes. The boys who were sold by parents, then “cut,” did not all become stars. The ones who lost their voices or never developed the talent needed for the stage are among history’s most tragic figures. The story tells of Tonio Treschi, a Venetian nobleman kidnapped and castrated, who rises through the ranks of this odd society. His teachers, lovers, audiences and family are all swept up by his unearthly gift, for which everyone pays a price. Read this and prepare to dream about the story at night. Rice is a clever literary witch.

Keegan Smith’s music: New baggage

Music can be heavy. By that I mean, it has baggage. Meaning, it takes me places.

And, some days, I just want to hear good music, not travel old roads and remember days when I was younger or happily dumber. I want to hear something new that makes me feel like I’m into something different, but not just a voyeur spying on the 20-somethings.

photo from Keegan Smith website/Portland Music Awards

I just want to feel good in the car with the music cranked up,  you know?

So, for that…there’s Keegan Smith. We heard this young guy a couple months ago at Jimmy Maks in Portland (best Jazz club in the Northwest, and maybe the West) and loved him. He’s original, but he showcases his roots. Clever, but real. A good musician who seems to love the life.

As an added attraction, this marked the first time I’d seen a rapper perform while holding an infant. (This being the time and place it is, the kid was wearing protective earplugs while Daddy got down.)

Then we went to hear him at another Portland club, where I was the oldest person in the room. It was the night after Halloween and everyone else was in costume. The guy dressed in a trash bag with a sign reading “Douche Bag” will go far in this life, you could tell.

Smith’s new CD, “Special Delivery” was just out and he performed several of the cuts. There’s some ghosts of the past in his work–you catch a few seconds of Paul Simon here, maybe a moment of Van Morrison, a whiff of Genesis in the late 1970s. With rap and reggae in there to be poetic and recreational.

I wanted the CD fast, so I downloaded it for $8.99 from Amazon. (I’m making dubs for friends, and I’ll send $8.99 a whack to Smith directly.  It is bad, bad juju to steal from a musician, my niece taught me that.)

Go ahead, get yourself some new baggage. There’s the download, used copies, or you can be a big spender and go for the new CD.

Posted in: Art |

“Cooks Source” is a den of thieves.

People who steal images or words from others on the web will go to a special Hell…where there is nothing to read but outdated airline magazines with pages missing.

And the reading light is too low.

Oh, and no snacks. Or bathroom.

And the only other human is the person who was meanest to you in grade school.

You, word thieves, are scum.

(Click here for “Copyright Infringement and Me,” a blog post about plagiarism by “Cooks Source Magazine” and one editor’s ridiculous response that inspired the above sentiments. The rant against Cooks Source is going viral and the unleashed fury is wonderful to behold.)

Leo Cullum, pilot, cartoonist and honorary critter.

You may not know the name “Leo Cullum,” but his voluble owls, dogs, anchovies and doctors made you laugh. The prolific New Yorker cartoonist has died, leaving behind a delightful archive.

The obit for Cullum in The New York Times by William Grimes is the rare one for a famous person that lists no sins or weaknesses alongside the accomplishments.

Cullum started cartooning later in life, and quickly developed a style of clever, deadpan humor conveyed in deceptively simple line drawings, often featuring animals. He earned his living previously as a pilot, starting out as a military flier. His quote about his Vietnam War service is a cartoon without a drawing:

“In 1966 he was sent to Vietnam, where he flew 200 missions, most in support of ground-troop operations, but at one point he flew secret bombing runs over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. ‘Who these were secret from I’m still not sure,” Mr. Cullum told Holy Cross magazine in 2006. “The North Vietnamese certainly knew it wasn’t the Swiss bombing them.’ ”

Click here for a slideshow of his work.

The power of strong women.

A beautiful video of great athletes. Watch it here.

Here’s the story in The New York Times that accompanies it.

(Update: Some of the letters to the editor that followed chastised the paper for sexualizing the women in a way that would not be done if they were men. They asked: Why not just show them as the superior athletes they are, without erotic slow-mo, loose hair and makeup? Well,  letter-writers, I thought that too, for a second. Then I realized that these young women do wear makeup when they play, and it takes more than slo-mo to objectify ‘em. They don’t believe that their athleticism is diminished by looking good.)

Harvey Pekar dies. Doesn’t that just figure.

Harvey Pekar, best known for his autobiographical “American Splendor” graphic-novel series and the 2003 movie “The Quitter,” that dramatized his dejected world view, saw every glass as half empty. A half-empty glass leaving a ring on the table. He is dead at age 70, which just proves, as he always knew, that shit happens and then you die.

In a gesture as perfect as it was unintentional, the news of Pekar’s death was posted on the Los Angeles Times site, right under a handy pull-down menu labeled “Foreclosures.”  Harvey would have approved.

Harvey Pekar ("pee-kar") would not be surprised that people are posting his stuff without his permission.

LoveGivesMeHope and FmyLife….the soap operas of our time.

LoveGivesMeHope…..the name of this blog would normally make me gag…but once I started looking through it, I admit it, I got sorta hooked. It came about because its creators were burned out on a blog that was just the opposite–Fmylife–all about life’s downers.

Sadly, I probably prefer the latter. More comic material. It doesn’t register as high as “Best of Craigslist” on the procrastination meter, but it’s good.

A century of high kicks.

The last of the Ziegfeld Girls has passed away, and the world is a lesser place.

According to The New York Times, Doris Eaton Travis died at age 106, the last of the famed and comely (36-26-38) performers hired in the early 1900s for the famous Broadway troupe.

She was part of a famous stage family, the Seven Little Eatons, and began dancing in public at age 5. The obit in the NYT by Douglas Martin is a minor masterpiece of factual yet gentlemanly reporting:

“Doris began as a chorus girl and understudy to the show’s star. In 1919, she wore a red costume and played the paprika part in the salad dance. ”

“While appearing in the show she fell in love with the songwriter Nacio Herb Brown…Mrs. Travis’s relationship with Mr. Brown lasted intermittently for eight years but never led to marriage. Mr. Brown himself married five other women all told, divorcing all of them.”

“..Arthur Murray hired her to teach ballroom dancing in Manhattan. She taught 70 hours a week until moving to Michigan to start the new franchise.One student was Paul Travis, who made a fortune by inventing a door jamb for cars. She and Mr. Travis married and later moved to Norman, Okla., where they bred quarter horses.”

And, my favorite, the ending to the story of the last Ziegfeld Girl:

“A little more than two weeks ago Mrs. Travis returned to Broadway to appear again at the annual Easter Bonnet Competition held by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, this time at the Minskoff Theater. She did a few kicks, apologizing that she no longer performed cartwheels.”