Wednesday, February 28

28 days as a general rule are plenty

A clean slate: this was the theme of Martha Stewart’s January issue. Well, we’re two full months into 2007 and I’m still working on cleaning my slate. I determined to finish books and projects underway and to do the things on my “list of things to do” before I undertook anything else. And while I haven’t followed this plan completely (there was that impulse reread of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire a couple of weeks ago), I have made some progress. Bethany, Hilary and David all have had the books I borrowed returned to them. Salvation Army received a load of cast-offs. The sweater I started knitting last fall is inching along again.

Today is the last day of February, and I’m glad of it. The Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance was right: for such a beastly month as February, twenty-eight days as a general rule are plenty. I’m ready for sunshine warm enough to enjoy outside and not just through windows. It will be a bit sad to say goodbye to scarves and my red suede shoes, but that’s a small price to pay for strawberries, Birkenstocks, skirts and fresh herbs.

On Monday night I dreamed that I was Harry Potter on the night before my final confrontation with Voldemort. Don’t ask how I knew it would happen the next day; I just did. It was evening and hundreds of people were camping out in tents on the Hogwarts grounds (which looked like the lawn surrounding Mt. Olive Presbyterian Church). They had built bonfires and there was a festive sense of expectation in the air, not unlike the Triwizard Tournament. Everyone believed that I (Harry) would be victorious—except me. I was anything but certain of it, and I felt alienated from everyone else. I peeked into the windows of the Riddle house nearby (which looked like my parents’ living room—the Riddles have the same butterfly rug, apparently), and some ghostly flashes of light told me Voldemort was at work.

I would say July 21 can’t come quickly enough, but I’m in no hurry to have this series over. And my dream didn’t make me any more confident about Harry’s chances of survival. In 2005 I dreamed that the Belhaven library accidentally put out their copies of The Half-Blood Prince a few days early, and I had a chance to read it before anyone else did. That’s two dreams about Harry Potter. Can anyone help me? I seem to have a problem.

Monday, February 26

Them kids are in a funny way

It was about ten years ago that my dad took Wendell, Paula, Micah and me to hear Livingston Taylor play at the Saenger Theatre in Mobile. On Friday night Paula, Tuan and I were privileged to hear him again at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge. I grew up hearing Livingston and his brother James on the turntable in the background during family evenings. I remember staring at the cover of Echoes, taking in every detail down to his long pale eyelashes while I tried to figure out if this was two brothers who looked eerily alike or the same man shown twice. Record covers allow a lot more scope for visual contemplation, you know.

On Friday night Livingston took the stage in his characteristic oxford shirt, bowtie and suspenders. He is down-to-earth and approachable. He chats with fans before, during intermission and after the show. After each song he steps out of the spotlight, snaps his long frame straight and bows. His rubber face registers mock surprise when the applause continues enthusiastically, but he seems genuinely honored to be doing what he’s doing. When I’m Not as Herbal as I Ought to Be is met with (relatively) thunderous applause Liv chides the audience, “I didn’t know you liked the cheap stuff! Heck, I wore a bowtie and everything.” The audience is pretty mellow, but when a smattering of applause breaks out at the opening of his children’s song Pajamas, he grins, “That’s right—the hits just keep on coming!”

The audience is almost entirely composed of people my parents’ age. I suspect that most of them are probably liberal. “I am young and conservative,” I think. “How did I get here?” But Livingston himself is an odd mixture of northern and southern, liberal and conservative. He grew up in North Carolina and now lives in Boston. Why Wasn’t I Born Gay? makes me a bit uncomfortable, but before long he’s singing gospel songs, which probably makes other people uncomfortable. At the climax of Step by Step (But Satan has no weapon / No arrow, knife, or sword / That can take away the love / Of Jesus Christ the Lord) the audience breaks into cheers.

Here is the set list for Friday evening:
1. Life is Good
2. I’m in a Pickle
3. Letting the Whiskey Do the Talking
4. Never Lose Hope
5. North to Alaska
6. Last Alaska Moon
7. I’m Not as Herbal as I Ought to Be
8. Olympic Guitar
9. Why Wasn’t I Born Gay
10. Kitty Hawk, December, Nineteen-Three
11. There You Are Again
12. Tell Jesus (to come to my house)
13. Pajamas
14. Heart and Soul
15. Yes
16. Answer My Prayer
17. Step by Step
18. Best of Friends
19. On and On
20. I Wish I Were a Cowboy
21. Carolina Day
22. City Lights
23. Railroad Bill
24. Our Turn to Dance
25. My Baby Don’t Mind
26. Over the Rainbow
27. Grandma’s Hands

Thursday, February 22

Things are gonna get better in the bye-and-bye

"When we were young," I told my cousin Anna, "and your dad used to play his bluegrass albums, I thought I would never like that kind of music. I remember thinking, 'Uncle Scott is great and all, but he's just got it wrong on this one.' And now look where we are." We were standing in line at Hal & Mal's on Saturday night, waiting to hear Old Crow Medicine Show. Anna laughed and we went inside the smoky room to slip up to the front, ready to hear some good live music. While we waited for the band to start I mentally added bluegrass to the list of the things about which I've been wrong. I'm glad to have grown into an appreciation for rural music. Perhaps a steady TV diet of The Andy Griffith Show made it inevitable.

Old Crow delivered on the good live music. I'm only peripherally familiar with them--I don't feel much ownership of artists unless I own at least one album--through a few mp3s and hearing them open for Gillian Welch at Hal & Mal's two years ago. Back then they were up-and-coming bluegrass newcomers; now they probably have more mainstream recognition than Gillian Welch does. Fiddler Ketch Secor plays with almost Chris-Thile-like intensity, and the band was loud, tight and raucous.

There's a certain dorkiness inherent in bluegrass music. I have to admit I'm surprised OCMS is as popular as they are. Mountain music has been around for a long time; is it because these boys are young and sexy that it's suddenly cool to listen to? One of the things I love about bluegrass and rural music is its acknowledgement that life is hard but still worth celebrating. This view is shared by a lot of traditional folk and Celtic songs (another love I didn't see coming). Some of these have been brought to my attention lately by the lovely Kate Rusby. Her amazing voice wraps around lyrics like, "When Jimmy talks about the wars, it's worse than death to hear him / I must go out and hide me tears, because I cannot bear him" (The Recruited Collier) and our hearts break for the girl who's lost her love to the military. In another Kate Rusby song, Drowned Lovers, William and Margaret lose their lives thanks to meddling mothers and a strong river, but the music urges us to dance.

The bluegrass tradition in general recognizes that God and the Devil are real, the world is broken, and good things come into it but more is promised after life. Dancing to a song like Drowned Lovers might seem incongruous, but a worldview that allows for beauty and pain, fun and death, music and tears lets us do that.