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Water On Mars

ESA Water on Mars

I am leaving town to visit relatives and to see Tom Paley in concert, so The Celestial Monochord will be quiet for several days. But I thought I'd show you this image from the European Space Agency, showing water ice in the floor of a crater on Mars. It's very cool and the press release about it is worth reading.

But part of what interests me is that I know of the image from only two sources: a friend who emailed it to me to ask "Is this real?" and from the latest issue (October) of Sky and Telescope. If the picture got wider press in the United States, I completely missed it. It's water. On Mars. Do I have a conspiratorial disposition, or would this have been utterly unavoidable in the United States if it had been taken by NASA, which has made so much fuss lately about its own search for water on Mars?

M.o.M.A. Don't Allow It

(photo from The Bizargrass News Network)

Musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson has been telling a story lately in interviews and during her stage show. She wanted to make an opera out of the novel Gravity's Rainbow, written by the notoriously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon:

I wrote him a letter proposing doing an opera based on "Gravity's Rainbow". I got a beautiful letter from him saying he'd be delighted, but with one stipulation: that it be scored for solo banjo. Some people have a great way of saying "no way". At some point I'd like to try again to see if he's expanded the instrumentation.
Now, I try to use The Celestial Monochord to talk about things I like, in hopes of understanding them better and helping them grow. And I certainly don't know what Thomas Pynchon may have been thinking — or certainly there's no good evidence that I know better what he was thinking than Laurie Anderson does. Nor, for that matter, am I certain just how facetious Ms. Anderson may have been in recounting the story ...

but ... but ...

IS SHE OUT OF HER MIND? It seems obvious — at least given the little information I have, which is Anderson's own multiple descriptions of the incident — that had she accepted the challenge, we would have an opera of Gravity's Rainbow, written for banjo. How perfect is that?

It's well to remember that Pynchon is a considered one of the most innovative living artists, but he doesn't hang with the literary or high-art crowd ... for some reason. Perhaps he finds them too closed-minded, too predictable. Some reports have him as some kind of aerospace engineer working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I think it was.

My theory is he was not politely saying "No." He was saying, "Yes, but only if you make an effort to broaden your imagination. You've been doing the same schtick since the 1970's. Why not try something else?" The fact that Anderson interpreted Pynchon's proposal as a solid "No" suggests (to me, anyway) that Pynchon knew exactly who he was dealing with and how she would react. I can think of at least a half-dozen brilliant, innovative, and versatile banjoists who should follow up on this signal from the mysterious Mr. Pynchon. I wonder if playwright and banjoist Sean Dixon of BanjoBanjar knows about this ...

And Anderson's a fiddler! She should know better.

The Torch Singer

Prine torch singer


(This is part of an occasional series on John Prine's second album,
Diamonds in the Rough:   Everybody  The Torch Singer  Souvenirs
The Late John Garfield Blues  Sour Grapes  Billy The Bum  The Frying Pan
Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You  Take the Star Out of the Window  The Great Compromise  Clocks and Spoons  Rocky Mountain Time


In "The Torch Singer," John Prine provides a view of himself not as we usually think of him, as a songwriter and performer, but as an audience member — that is, now he's in our shoes. And it's a grim vision. Prine has always thought deeply about women's voices, and has even recorded an entire album of duets between himself and women singers. Here, in 1972, the torch singer's song leaves him in some kind of exquisite pain and self-loathing:

She sang of the love that left her
And of the woman that she'll never be
Made me feel like the buck and the quarter
That I paid 'em to listen and see

Maybe Prine's narrator is the torch singer's ex — that is, he's the love that left her — and her song leaves him guilt-ridden. Or maybe she reminds him of other women he's wronged. Or, most interesting to me, maybe he recognizes himself in her, and in her performer's servitude to the audience, which now includes him:

I picked through the ashes of the torch singer's song
And I ordered my money around
For whiskey and fame both taste the same
During the time they go down

Ultimately, what troubles the singer is intense but uncertain, like the unspecified troubles facing the characters in the album's previous song.

To me, this song has always been vaguely flawed in a way that only makes it more perfect. "The Torch Singer" is a waltz, which is just about the last meter I'd expect a torch song to use. But this isn't a torch song, it's about a torch song. It's not the torch singer's point of view, but the audience's — and their perspective requires a tragic country waltz.

The cut starts with a kind of a cappella cry from Prine, "The nightcluuuuuub was burning," With "burning," Prine's guitar and Steve Burgh's bass come in, thumping down on the first beat of the waltz-time measure (ONE two three). Two beats later, John's older brother and his strongest early influence, the versatile Dave Prine makes his first appearance of the album, on the dobro. The sliding, whining dobro gives this recording — or just about any recording — a strong country feel.

It's only after the second line of the lyrics that the arrangement finally declares itself as bluegrass, via David Bromberg's remarkable mandolin accompaniment. In the spirit of Bill Monroe's approach to the instrument, Bromberg uses the whole pig, squeal and all. As Robert Cantwell writes:

The shallow, metallic, sometimes toylike sound characteristic of the mandolin ... is the problem that Monroe solved by abandoning the effort to produce discrete, pure tones. Monroe's tones are not discrete: they come at us like meteors trailing the smoke and flames of ... tones, overtones, and sheer noise ... Its texture arises in part from the undercurrent of noise made by the washboardng of the pick itself on the strings and from the many complex overtones in the mandolin ... Whereas the jazz trumpet seems to take the smoke of the cabaret into its throat, the mandolin's sound, like that of a distant engine, is a noise that seems to resolve itself into a tone.

The song's storyline, if any, is left to the listener. The point of this recording is to convey a feeling and an atmosphere using John's almost yelling voice, the country waltztime, the whining dobro and noisy mandolin, and — most of all — John's hellish lyrics. They bring to mind the atmospherics of Heartbreak Hotel, which I once heard compared to Dante's Inferno:

The nightclub was burning from the torch singer's song
And the sweat was flooding her eyes
The catwalk squeaked 'neath the bartender's feet
And the smoke was too heavy to rise

The narrator's entire life seems drawn up into the atmosphere of this nightclub only to be burnt up by the torch song's grief and humiliation:

I was born down in Kansas 'neath the October sky
Worked the dayshift from seven to three
And the only relief that I received
Was nearer, my God, to thee
She constantly throws me off timing,
Leaves me standing both naked and bare
Makes me feel like the Sunday funnies
After everything's gone off the air
Air, everything's gone off the air

The intervening years have left this song not dated, but poignantly situated in time. Was there really ever a moment in history when the darkness and lonesomeness of nighttime could deepen to the point where even the media of radio and television exhausted themselves, leaving us alone with our own troubled minds?

Pythagoras' Dying Words

This site is named after the drawing on the front cover of the Anthology of American Folk Music, depicting the hand of the Creator tuning the "celestial monochord." Reading up on the origins of the idea of the celestial monochord, I once ran across this passage:

Pythagoras is said to have taught that the universe is put together by means of harmonic laws and so produces, through the motion of the seven planets, rhythm and melody. The very enthusiastic Neo-Pythagorean Iamblichus went so far as to claim that Pythagoras could actually hear the cosmic music inaudible to other mortals. And since all discoveries about the Pythagorean cosmos were dependent on the numerical ratios sounded by a stretched string, or monochord, it was reported by the Neo-Platonic musical theorist Aristides Quintilianus that Pythagoras' dying injunction to his students was “work the monochord.”
Work the monochord. I think of this often when this blog feels like way too much work, and I want to quit.

Today, Expecting Rain featured my long posts about the New Lost City Ramblers and Bob Dylan, and it has really done wonders for my site statistics, to say nothing of my resolve to forge ahead! I thank them. Surely, they must be very familiar with the thankless, relentless job of blogging, and I suspect that the long hours of lonesome computer work must be why they chose their name, based on this Dylan lyric:

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortunetelling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain

Editor's Note: The quote about Pythagoras has been very slightly edited for pithiness. You can find the whole thing at the Dictionary of the History of Ideas. "Work the monochord" ... well, you know those ancient Greeks ...

Harry Smith, Bob Dylan, and
"The Ramblers Step" (Part 2)

(See also Part 1)

The New Lost City Ramblers and Harry Smith

Reading a song as sheet music is like looking at a roadmap of a place.  Hearing an actual recorded performance of a song is like is going to the place and eating its gumbo. Both the Ramblers and the Anthology grew out of this critical historical shift:

The locus of collecting, preserving, and disseminating folklore changed from the printed page to the electronic media. In the first half of the twentieth century, folklorists began to use disc, tape, wire, and film rather than writing to collect and preserve sung and played folk music, and a parallel documentation was carried out by the fledgling entertainment industry which inadvertently preserved some dying folkways among its ... phonograph records. [John Pankake, liner notes to NLCR: The Early Years, 1958-1962]

The Ramblers and the Anthology made this transformation matter desparately after WWII, when the LP brought the actual sound of America's folk musicians into the ears of young urban musicians.

Mike Seeger's ears were full of these sounds long before the Anthology. His parents had been turned on to Dock Boggs, for example, by Thomas Hart Benton in the early 1930's.  They turned away from the European museum pieces that meant "folk musc" to American intellectual leftists and musicologists. Instead, Mike grew up in a house with fresh field recordings by the likes of the Lomaxes, and with lively commercial recordings. Mike's dad even played for a time in Benton's hillbilly-style stringband (see Charles Seeger: A Life in American Music). But it is important to remember that this was not the mainstream American view of folk music until well after Moe Asch asked Harry Smith to compile his Anthology (with the intent of changing that mainstream view, I imagine). This explains the odd fact that when the Ramblers first appeared, a great many folk purists considered them "inauthentic."

Tom Paley, too, had anticipated the Anthology's message. In the late 1940's, he'd already been "an admired virtuoso on guitar and banjo," according to Philip Gura:

By the early 1950s, Paley and a few others began to steer an important segment of [East coast] urban musicians away from the then popular English ballads and political songs toward country music. The shift was crucial, for it distinguished Paley and Cohen from such proponents of the "art" folksong as Richard Dryer-Bennet and John Jacob Niles, on the one hand, and politically motivated artists like Pete Seeger and the Weavers, on the other.

Although Paley and Seeger knew some of the terrain covered by the Anthology, they very much welcomed it as a guide for themselves and their audience. Tom Paley:

When Folkways issued Harry Smith's Anthology, those three albums (six 12" LPs) hit us like thunderbolts ... The impact on those of us already interested in the music was terrific. [Harry Smith Tribute]

Interestingly, Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler (a protege of Mike Seeger's, I think it's fair to say) found much of the Rambler's material in Harry Smith's record collection, which Smith had sold to the New York Public Library (see Cantwell's book, When We Were Good).

The influence of the Anthology on John Cohen is even more clear-cut:

Raised in the suburbs where the Hit Parade (the top forty) dominated musical taste, I first became aware of a world outside my musical milieu when I heard the old commercial records on Harry Smith's Anthology, issued by Folkways in 1953. The Anthology, along with Alan Lomax's "Listen Tour Our Story, Mountain Frolic & Smoky Mountain Ballads," made me more receptive to the sounds that spawned bluegrass, Cajun, and rhythm & blues. It was very different from what filled the folk song marketplace of the 60s.

Over the years, Cohen has been a significant force in keeping the Anthology in the public imagination. For three decades, Cohen's 1969 interview with Harry Smith was just about the sole source of information about Smith that folk enthusiasts had available to them. Moe Asch reports that Cohen had been among those who had tried and failed to get the final "missing" volume of the Anthology released (see the 1997 notes to the Anthology).

In a certain sense, the Ramblers influenced the Anthology as much as the other way around by embodying its spirit, asserting its definitions of folk music, and putting it "in currency" among folk music enthusiasts. The Ramblers and the Anthology shared the same project of not only exhuming the old recordings, but resurrecting them — giving them new life in new contexts with new meanings and functions.

"Anthologizing" Dylan: The Ramblers Step

Bob Dylan didn't need the Anthology — he had the Ramblers. More importantly, before Dylan even showed up, the Folk Revival itself had already been crafted by the Anthology and the powerfully reenforcing efforts of the Ramblers. Let's go back to a quote from Dylan we saw earlier, in which he denies being strongly influenced by the Anthology:

... those recordings were around — that Harry Smith anthology — but that's not what everybody was listening to ... mostly you heard other performers. All those people [Griel Marcus is] talking about, you could hear the actual people singing those ballads. You could hear Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, Furry Lewis. You could see those people live and in person. They were around.

But Dylan could sit at the feet of these musicians only because, in the years immediately before Dylan showed up in New York, devotees of the Anthology had gone south in search of the musicians it featured. At Mike Seeger's strong urging, Ralph Rinzler traveled in 1960 to the Union Grove, NC Fiddler's Convention where Rinzler's research into the Anthology enabled him to recognize a musician prominently featured on the Anthology, Clarence Ashley. Rinzler soon returned to record Ashley, at which point Ashley introduced Rinzler to a young, blind guitarist named Arthel Watson, who everyone called "Doc":

I had brought the six-record collection [the Anthology] with me to give to Ashley as a way of making clear to him why I understood his importance. Doc Watson and I reviewed the list of performers and songs on the album covers. To my astonisment, he was familiar with many of them, having heard the recordings and some of the performers themselves in his childhood and having known others as neighbors. [from Rinzler's liner notes to "Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley: The Original Folkways Recordings, 1960-1962"]

Thanks to Rinzler's apprenticeship to the necessary combination of Mike Seeger and the Anthology, Clarence Ashley and Dock Watson made their first appearance in Greenwich Village only a couple of months before Dylan arrived from Minneapolis.

The Ramblers were, according to Philip Gura, "among the first to bring on stage with them living exemplars of the southern folk tradition, a very significant innovation." It was Seeger, for example, who "rediscovered" Dock Boggs and brought him to New York in 1964. If I understand Gura correctly, the Ramblers spearheaded the founding of the New York Friends of Old Time Music, a major force in bringing Southern musicians to urban audiences. Gura's essay — particularly its last section — provides a stirring summary of the enormous impact the Ramblers had on generations of traditional musicians in the United States, and Dylan was simply part of the first such generation. The streets of Dylan's Greenwich Village were simply paved with what Greil Marcus calls "The Old Weird America."

I believe the lesson Dylan learned best of all in those early years was the startling modernism of the Anthology's form and (most surprisingly) its contents, which were reinforced, I think, by the particular styles and personalities of the Ramblers. Cohen's experience with the avant-garde clicked with the Anthology. The Ramblers, like Dylan, had a mischievous attitude toward their own identity, sometimes telling audiences that their music originated in a place called New Lost City and impishly calling one album "Tom Paley, John Cohen, and Mike Seeger Sing Songs of the New Lost City Ramblers." I especially recognize Dylan in John Pankake's description of John Cohen:

John Cohen was the groups's William Blake, a visionary role befitting his artist's traning and talents. In retrospect, he seemed ... most aware that the group was about something more than entertaining, was carving out some yet unknown place in history and inspiring many of its audience to become a new kind of musical community, and he often struggled to articulate this evovling vision both onstage and in the poetic essays he wrote for the Rambler's albums.

The Beat movement and the Folk Revival grew up together in Greenwich Village, and developed a kind of shared culture (see Robert Cantwell's When We Were Good). Dylan, of course, explored this intersection more brilliantly than anyone. His stage was certainly set by the Anthology, with its improvisational plan, its prescient racial integration, and its flat-out weirdness. But Dylan was not alone. According to Gura, Cohen "had financed his first field trip to Kentucky in 1959 by selling Life magazine his photographs of Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others whom he had known in Greenwich Village." Somewhere, I recall a story in which the Ramblers ran across the street to a notorious Beat hangout to drag Ginsberg and others to see a concert by a Southern musician they'd brought to the city.

Finally, I simply hear the Ramblers in Dylan, most clearly in his first album, which I think remains shamefully underrated and too rarely heard. Although the Ramblers are often mistaken for simply imitating the old records, they instead deeply absorbed their spirit and idiom and then fearlessly created a new, vibrant art in response. Dylan's first album does nothing less. It comes off as pure Dylan in both its profound respect for tradition and (already) its almost reckless thrusting beyond tradition. It brings vividly to mind something John Cohen wrote in Sing Out! a full year before the album's release:

There are certain qualities we demand from the music. A sense of immediacy, of personal involvement, a sense of tradition as well as appreciation for that which carries things to a point where they can go no further ... a rejection of compromise ... an obsession ... with the song material and a sense of an event with every performance.

Harry Smith, Bob Dylan, and
"The Ramblers Step" (Part 1)

John Cohen's Dylan

(See also Part 2)

Greil Marcus did a fine and important thing with "Invisible Republic," a book which has overturned the way a lot of Bob Dylan's fans think of Dylan's career and music.

Rarely do Dylan fans still think of him as starting out as a folkie and then "going electric," leaving folk music behind in the transition. Marcus showed (very convincingly and much to our surprise) that the true influence of folk music on Dylan's imagination deepened, intensified, and reached a kind of maturity during and after Dylan's turn to rock and roll — instead of before.

However, at the center of his argument, Marcus places the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music edited by Harry Smith.

After about seven years trying to retrace and "fill in" this picture, I've decide that Marcus is right about folk music and Dylan's imagination, but he's only half right about Harry Smith and Dylan. Dylan did not learn Harry Smith's lessons directly from the Smith Anthology. He got them mostly second-hand — that is, he learned them, but mostly in translation. I'm now convinced that the single most important vehicle delivering Harry Smith's peculiar message to Dylan in those early days — the widest pipeline between Harry and Bob — was The New Lost City Ramblers. I'm also convinced that it matters, this missing what I think of as "The Ramblers Step."

Bob Dylan and Harry Smith

Like Harry Smith himself, the Anthology of American Folk Music was peculiar — perhaps even a bit insane. It was not a neutral, representative overview of folk music in America, but rather an idiosyncratic work of kaleidoscopic art that had little to do with folk music as it had previously been understood. Released in 1952, the Anthology was a collection of scarcely 20-year-old commercial recordings that few folklorists saw as folk music at all — one cut is even from a Hollywood singing-cowboy movie. But the music sounded (and still sounds) strange, wild and wooly, intensely immediate, and was presented with a modernist, mystic sense of collage that, today, is hard not to see as "Dylanesque."

Marcus' Invisible Republic established the Smith-Dylan connection, and the consequences are vast —but the details are fuzzy and shifting. Momentous but uncertain ... you can understand what made me want to confirm and describe the connection, sort of as a historian might. After years of trying, I'm come to feel that Marcus seems more persuasive the "bigger" he thinks — that is, he is a master of teasing out what matters, what has significance, what is at stake. Writing in this mode, he still has me entirely conviced of why the Anthology matters to Dylan, and why both should matter to you. But like a painting by Georges Seurat, the closer you get to the details, the more the picture breaks apart.

Really specific historical evidence that Dylan knew the Anthology well in the 1960's — that is, that it "was Bob Dylan's first true map" — is measly. Dylan did rewrite "Down on Penny's Farm" twice, and he recycled a line from "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" for "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again." But both these Anthology songs were "covered" often by Greenwich Village street and coffeehouse singers. Admittedly, "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" does sound suspiciously like "Moonshiner's Dance" (except played as a march), but this would never stand up in court.

I'm sincerely sorry to admit it, but I think we have an intellectual obligation to take Dylan seriously when he told Rolling Stone (November 22, 2001):

[Marcus] makes way too much of that ... those recordings were around — that Harry Smith anthology — but that's not what everybody was listening to. Sure, there were all those songs. You could hear them at people's houses. In know in my case, I think Dave Van Ronk had that record ... but mostly you heard other performers. All those people he's talking about, you could hear the actual people singing those ballads. You could hear Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, Furry Lewis. You could see those people live and in person. They were around.

But Dylan was deeply and directly affected by the New Lost City Ramblers, and the NLCR, in turn, were powerfully infuenced by Harry Smith's Anthology. Just as importantly, in the years between the release of the Anthology and Dylan's arrival in Greenwich Village, the Ramblers were a major force in spreading, far and wide, the same kind of lessons taught by the Anthology, so that by the time Dylan showed up on the scene, the Folk Revival that shaped Dylan had itself been thoroughly "Anthologized." Happily, the historical evidence for these claims is hard, over-lapping, deep, and dense.

Bob Dylan and the New Lost City Ramblers

Clearly, the New Lost City Ramblers were crucial to the early development of Dylan's self-image as a performer. Among the earliest photos ever taken of Dylan as a young musician is a fine photo set by a member of the NLCR, John Cohen. In them, you see the young Dylan adopting various poses and personas, experimenting with his image, trying to please the eye of the Rambler's camera. Cohen was a student of the fine arts and a sophisticated image-maker — it had been John Cohen who had come up with the name "New Lost City Ramblers," and he was thus the first person among many to admire the ambiguous, ambivalent, self-referential irony in the band's name. A few years later, Dylan addressed Cohen directly in the liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited (referring to, among other things, Cohen's apartment which had just been demolished to make room for the World Trade Center):

you are right john cohen — quazimodo was right — mozart was right … I cannot say the word eye any more … when I speak this word eye, it is as if I am speaking of somebody's eye that I faintly remember … there is no eye — there is only a series of mouths — long live the mouths — your rooftop — if you don't already know — has been demolished … eye is plasma & you are right about that too — you are lucky — you don't have to think about such things as eye & rooftops & quazimodo. [punctuation and capitalization are Dylan's]

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dylan dedicates a lenghty passage of his recent autobiography to the importance of Rambler Mike Seeger to Dylan's sense of himself as an artist:

He was extraordinary, gave me an eerie feeling. Mike was unprecedented. He was like a duke, the knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula's black heart ... It's not as if he just played everyting well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them ... it dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns ... the thought occurred to me that maybe I'd have to write my own songs, ones that Mike didn't know. That was a startling thought.

Perhaps to partly repay this debt, Dylan later recorded a banjo-guitar duet with Seeger for one of Seeger's albums.

Invisible Republic points to "Henry Lee" as opening both the Anthology and World Gone Wrong, one of two great albums of old folksongs Dylan recorded in the early 1990's. But in the liner notes to World Gone Wrong, Dylan again points to a Rambler, Tom Paley, as the song's source instead of the Anthology. Indeed, World Gone Wrong's version bares very little resemblance to that on the Anthology, either lyrically, melodically, or emotionally. The two songs share the same subject matter, but they are different songs entirely — Dylan's version is Paley's.  (Actually, the song appeared on a 1965 album by Tom Paley and Peggy Seeger, Mike's sister.)  In confusing the Anthology's version with Paley's, Marcus has erased the Ramblers from the trail of evidence. Nevertheless, it's clear to me that Dylan, at least based on his word, wants to be associated with the Ramblers and is at best indifferent to his association with the Anthology.

See also Part 2

Math and Memory in New Lost City

Paley Cohen Seeger New Lost City Rambler

I finally bought The New Lost City Rambler's compilation of their later stuff, 1963-1973, which is titled "Out Standing in their Field." The cover art has a photo of them, you know ... out ... standing ... in their field. This is a very old joke, which is never funny — except in the case of the New Lost City Ramblers, where it really is funny.

One of the members of the band, John Cohen, tells another story that also isn't funny, but because it's the New Lost City Ramblers, it's really hilarious:

A few years ago at a literary gathering in New York City, I was introduced to a music publisher. He remembered the New Lost City Ramblers, he said, and then asked, "What was the band's big hit?"

When you read about the New Lost City Ramblers, you're told over and over that their influence has outdistanced their sales. But over the last half-dozen years or so, I've come to realize, with deepening amazement, just how true this is. It should always be written with exclamation points.

The band formed in 1958. By 1962, they had already broken up largely due to the fact that there was no money it. With three guys in the band (one of whom had a family to support), the math just didn't add up. They reconfigured, replacing one member, and proceeded to limp along, although for the vast majority of the last 43 years, they've been able to make more money individually being remembered as members of the NLCR than they could together performing as members of the NLCR. Of something like 30 original albums, I count about 5 that are in print as CD's.

The irony is this:

The Ramblers' influence on generations of young musicians who have followed in their footsteps is incalculable: it's difficult to imagine a revival of old-time music of any consequence without them. (MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide)

Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, and David Grisman learned to play from their albums. Bob Dylan's recent autobiography includes a thirteen-page ode dedicated to dramatizing the enormous impact that Rambler Mike Seeger had on the young Dylan:

Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change, but you can only feel it ... But then something immediate happens and you're in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it — you're set free ... Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door — something jerks it open and you're shoved in and your head has to go into a different place. Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it. Mike Seeger had that affect on me.

There's little danger of over-stating the Rambler's influence — at least until somebody finally gets around to just stating it. Philip Gura, in a hair-raising essay in the journal Southern Culture, is one of the few who've tried. The essay leaves you with the impression that he may be over-stating the case. But is he? It's worth looking into the New Lost City Ramblers and giving it some thought. You may as well — they're out standing in their field.

Math and Memory in Las Vegas

There's a place on the New Strip across from the Monte Carlo where you can get your picture taken with a big fat Elvis impersonator in front of a Model A Ford. Why a Model A Ford? I don't know. Maybe the whole of "The Past" occurred simultaneously, at least in Las Vegas, at least apparently. On the other hand, if you go to Vegas with your critical faculties intact, you miss the whole experience entirely.


Inside the Luxor pyramid, there's a booth where tourists have videos made of themselves riding a "magic carpet" in front of a bluescreen backdrop. They sit on an oriental rug and are superimposed into a pre-taped video of a rocking, reeling ride down Las Vegas boulevard, while employees shout instructions at them about how to look like they're careening around and reacting to stuff. They get to take home a video putting it all together, with a soundtrack consisting of Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" (you know, "close your eyes, girl, look inside, girl ... "). All of this is entirely appropriate, of course, as you know, since there are pictographs inside the Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid at Khufu in Egypt depicting tourists making a similar video.


What always amazes and attracts me about Vegas is that it's a town devoted to a branch of mathematics — statistics. The cold, objective, inescapable fact is that you will lose your money. It's as hard and as mundane a fact as any in mathematics. So, the entire city grew up around this fact, like a pearl around a grain of sand. All the lights, the sequins, the wedding chapels, the mythology and history of the place, the Brat Pack, Elvis impersonators, Elvis, Siegfried and Roy, the cheezy Waitsian low-rent romance, the fiberglass-hot-dog architecture, the access and denial-of-access to various VIP areas, the libido of the place, its boundless and peerless T&A — it's all necessitated by the very rigor itself of the logic that demands that you will lose and the house will win. As long as you're dreaming, they know you're asleep ...