In Praise of Phil Ochs: Everyday Magic, Day 887

indexFriday night, I finally go to see the late Phil Ochs in concert thanks to West Side Folk’s “A Night of Phil Ochs,” in which singer, actor and shining soul Zachary Stevenson completed embodied Ochs in voice, gestures, patter between songs, and stories. There’s been no way for me and many others who love his music to see the actual Phil Ochs live since he killed himself in 1976, about three years before I heard him singing “Changes” on the radio and fell in love. At least, that was

Zachary Stevenson as Phil Ochs
Zachary Stevenson as Phil Ochs

true until Friday night. Och’s sister Sonny, according to Bob McWilliams who organized the concert and does so much to keep the music alive in our community, once introduced Stevenson by saying, “If you’ve never seen Phil in concert, now you can.” While I can’t compare the real Ochs in concert with Stevenson, friends who saw Stevenson affirmed he was the real deal in gesture and tone.

There are some voices in the world so distinctive and soulful that they feel like the home we didn’t know we lost. The first times I heard James Taylor, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Springsteen, Greg Greenway, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell, and Kelley Hunt, I felt like they were old friends I’ve known all my life and whose music seemed to know me also. Phil Ochs is part of that small circle of friends for me, but unlike his song of the same title, this circle doesn’t turn away out of self-interest or apathy, but shows up via recorded performances, radio, CDs and records, and even in the songs I play in my mind some days when I swim laps.

Phil Ochs particularly had a depth of passion funneled through clarity, wit, and conviction. There’s no way to listen to any Och’s song without believing him, or at least, that he believes in his bones all he sings. There’s also something about Ochs that transcends the sum of his considerable parts: a great sense of rhythm and verve in his songwriting, his vibrant guitar playing and picking, and most of all, his bell of a voice. I’ve been trying to name that something since the concert as I’ve watched videos of Ochs and listened to Stevenson’s astonishing recording of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.”¬† What was it that made me spend hours decades ago doing the same thing with albums rather than youtube videos when I was 19? I remember long mornings in the KOPN community radio studio in Columbia, Missouri back in 1980 when, on the loose premise that I was looking for music for my democratic socialist radio show, I pored over Ochs’ albums, studying each line and each earnest turn of his voice. He mirrored back to me my yearnings to do something that mattered through writing and activism, but he also spoke and sung right into the center of whoever I was.

Phil Ochs, Berkeley, CA April 1969 sheet 272 frame 11-12

I forgot about this time until the concert when every word came back to me and just about everyone else, even the long chorus of “Draft Dodger Rag.” As I looked around each time Stevenson began a favorite song — “Pleasures of the Harbor,” “Changes, “When I’m Gone” — I saw people so elated they needed to wipe their eyes. I remembered a quote from Ochs that speaks to me more as I age: “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.” Thank you to West Side Folk Folk and Zachary Stevenson for bringing us back this particular beauty that grows in depth and meaning even 40 years after he’s gone.

What Is a Year?: Everyday Magic, Day 833

If 2014 was a mouse, I’d let my cats kill it, and then I would, like I do with all their usual triumphs, pick it up by the tip of its tail and fling it out into the cold, dark night. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s not any kind of mammal, but just another bundle of time nearing its expiration point. Yet when I think about this year, I land on wocrisis, near-miss, loss, death, outrage, fear, and the most challenging word of all, change.

In the last year, many family and friends experienced game-changing crises, catalyzing moves home or away, job changes, long stays in hospital rooms or short stints in triage, and a whole lot of funerals. Some of the changes or deaths were slow, full of healing, grace, pain, and release. Some were sudden and shocking. Some were utterly surprising although, in retrospect, we should have been it coming.

In my life, I’ve been slogging through the potholes of grief in the last few weeks since my friend Jerry died, and earlier this fall, six people I was a little or a little more close to left the planet. Last spring, there was a heart-shaking showdown between the union and management in my workplace, fueling a binge of insomnia for me. Some of my three children underwent big shifts in jobs, homes, relationships. My mother-in-law has been in the hospital for much of December, and the tunnel through heart issues to greater health and longer life is still very much in play. Some organizations I’m very involved in needed to rescued from the brink. And I’ve tried to be present for dear ones going through some of life’s most excruciating passages.

I’ve also had more than my share of blessing, whimsy, and laughter, including breaking my toilet, delighting in three books coming out, working in discernment and love with students at Goddard College and in workshops, and witnessing great unfoldings of beauty — in the skies, in the faces of people I meet, in the eyes of cats, dogs, and humans. I’ve traveled through Kansas and to Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Michigan (for the first time), Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, and three times to the Twin Cities and back. I’ve gotten too many colds and have eaten too few dark, leafy greens. I dragged a cedar tree into the house and strung it up with lights, capping it with a decorative squirrel. I’ve cleaned the house about 41 times, and even scrubbed the laundry room once. I’ve made and consumed a lot of enchiladas, and taken many naps with cats on my chest. I’ve read some great books, including many of the novels of Ann Patchett and Amy Bloom, and also surely gotten enough sleep, one way or another. I swam many laps, walked many miles, sat many hours on my ass, and pushed/relaxed myself into deeper downward dogs. I’ve also watched a whole lof to movies, aiming for inspiration, laughs (even when wedded to stupidity), and charm.

There’s no way for me to encapsulate any year, particularly this one, which often defied any single word, sentence or paragraph. So often, I’ve felt like I was climbing a roller coaster, and then holding my stomach for dear life as we plummeted down at high speed. What echoes and winds through all of it? Music, even if mostly of the wind. Attention, even and especially at the moments so hard there’s nothing left to do but focus on the immediate. Tenderness, which I keep finding trumps all else when the chips are the down, the storm is upon us, and the pain makes us want to jump out of our skin.

I come back to how the way we treat each other — no matter what is happening and particularly when it’s painful, confusing, and scary — is what matters most. We pay attention, which means listening enough to hear the music of the moment. Then we open our arms, even to whatever a year has been, and with hope, to the next year’s story.

Oh Give Me a Poem Where the Buffalo Roam: Everyday Magic, Day 804

IMG_0806It started a year ago in the pool when during my long, slow parade of laps, I paused at the end of the pool. A speed-swimming man popped out of the lane beside me, and asked, in the kind of polite, British accent that it’s hard to refuse, if I ever considered writing a memoir about my poet laureate years. That man was Brian Daldorph, who runs Coal City Press, and a few days later, not to mention many laps thinking about it, I said yes to the book that would become Poem on the Range: A Poet Laureate’s Love Song to Kansas.

Like all book projects to the easily-optimistic, this one seemed kind of easy and fun. Fun it was, but “easy” quickly became a complicated term. I had many blog posts about my poet laureate time, but there was the work of transforming them into chapters, finessing words and paragraphs, and “killing darlings” (the writerly term for letting go of passages we’re attached to). I also thought the book wouldn’t be nearly so interesting without greater context, so I brought in some travelogue writing to give readers a sense of some of the communities I traversed, and best of all, poems from many gracious writers near and far. In the end, the book’s fishing expedition for Kansas poems (with excursions for poet laureate poems from other states) brought over 40 poems to bunk down in various chapters.

Then, of course, there are all the necessary tasks to turn a manuscript into a book, including finding a good cover image (thanks, Stephen Locke, for your IMG_0809wonderful photo!), design (thanks to the wildly-talented Leah Sewell), collecting blurbs from other writers, excessive proofreading (thank you, Brian!), and printing proofs and reading them repeatedly and then printing more proofs.

Yesterday, all eased into the book in Brian’s and my hands, with gratitude and poetry for all.

Upcoming readings:
3 p.m., July 10 – Astra Arts Festival, Independence, KS

7 p.m., July 29 (with Roy Beckemeyer and his new book, Music I Could Once Dance To, The Raven bookstore, Lawrence, KS

Get your book at The Raven or through Coal City Press

 

Why You Should Support the Best Work Of One of the Best Musicians: Everyday Magic, Day 788

Kelley and some of the musicians she recorded with in Nashville
Kelley and some of the musicians she recorded with in Nashville

Yesterday I listened to one of the most beautiful albums in my life: Kelley Hunt’s new studio album. How did I get so lucky? Because I co-wrote some of the songs on the album, Kelley called me up and said, “Want to come over and listen to the music?” Despite being home less than a day from Goddard (when I normally won’t leave the house unless there’s a Kansas tsunami), I was out the door and on Kelley’s couch that afternoon. What I heard was what heart and soul sound like when made into music. I laughed, I cried, I hummed all the way home.

Which is why I’m writing today to encourage you to support Kelley in her indiegogo campaign. Being a musician, or just about any artist these days, ranges from dubious to impossible when it comes to making a living. Kelley and her manager/husband Al have been dancing on that edge for years, putting out powerful music in the form of five critically-acclaimed CDs and international tours from Vancouver to North Carolina and back again, both solo and with the Kelley Hunt band.

Kelley and the McCrary Sisters
Kelley and the McCrary Sisters

Now they have a new CD, freshly recorded with the likes of the amazing McCrary sisters (legendary gospel singers) singing with her, plus Tony Harrell on accordion and B3, drummer/percussionist Bryan Owings, a kick-ass horn section and many more of the top musicians in Nashville. The album is recorded and mixed, and just needs to be mastered while Kelley and Al work with artists on the cover art.

“This is the best work I’ve ever done,” Kelley told me. Those of you who know her music can only imagine since her previous best work shines long after the CD or concert is done. Here is she performing on the Legendary Blues Cruise last year, and here she is singing “My Funny Valentine.” Kelley has also played dozens of benefits, helping people in this region and beyond over the years.

So I’m writing you to invite you with all my heart to give some of your love to Kelley’s campaign — right here. For a small amount, you can get your own copy of the CD, signed, sealed and delivered. For larger amounts, there are other great perks (even a concert with Kelley in your backyard if you wish). Please support one of our best musicians doing her best art.

“I Have My Home in Two Worlds”: Coleman Barks, John Willison, Rumi, Magic Musicians and Wild Wonder: Everyday Magic, Day 744

With Coleman and John (and a very bright lamp)
With Coleman and John (and a very bright lamp)

Last night was one of the shining evenings of my life. Surrounded by lightning and thunder lighting up the stained glass windows at Unity on the Plaza, and immersed in Rumi’s poetry and all the improvisation in word and music it inspired, I was bedazzled. I’ve long felt a kinship with Coleman Barks and a deep appreciation for what he’s done to bring Rumi to the world, and I love Rumi’s poetry with a vengeance.DSCN2021

It was enough to land here with¬† Rumi performed by Coleman Barks and a trio of musicians who had never played together before on a stormy, perfect October night (while also reunited with old friends), but there was more glory. I was there with Kelley, one of my closest friends, in great part to hear John Willison, one of my Turning Point writing workshop participants. Through a phone call (thanks to John’s wife Pauline, and Coleman’s open heart), it was arranged that John would read one of his poems that evening while the musicians chimed in.

John started his reading by telling the audience that he had metastatic cancer — cancer traveled from its sight to other points in the body with little chance of turning back. His poem, written on Sunday in the workshop “Writing for Life, Love and Legacy,” speaks to what it means to live so vibrantly while knowing in each breath how mortal he is. John read the poem first without music, and then with the astonishing merging of Allaudin Ottinger on percussion, Nathaniel Caetanya Bottorff on strings, and a marvelous clarinetist. Here is his poem:

I have my home in two worlds

 

This one:

With all its wild running,

Stuffing my pockets full of pleasure.

A smile the size of a candy shop!

 

I open my closet,

My whole life pours out

In excessive sweetness.

 

Even my suffering has taken a shine.

Running my fingers over my scars,

What were once indignities

Are now a flutter in the heart…

 

I bashfully flirt with every beauty.

 

The blushing maple, there

That brushstroke of moon.

Her hand on my chest,

Light as air,DSCN2011

And just as needed.

 

It’s all an enchantment.

 

I am aware of the windows being shut at the back of the house,

The doors, propped open, closing.

But this is not to be a constraint, a prison for beggars.

 

Not a house of sorrows.

 

Yes, everything will tremble.

All will fall.

This container will topple off the shelf and shatter,

Spilling into an infinite field,

 

Where this greeting awaits:

 

Hello, darling. Welcome home.

~ John Willison