Early in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, a 40-year-old backup goaltender for the Washington Capitals filled in admirably for two games in an emergency, but was unable to play for the rest of the series. Hockey teams, it turns out, are notoriously opaque when it comes to injuries, preferring euphemisms to transparency. No one tweaks a groin or pinches a nerve. Instead, they have a “lower body” or an “upper body” injury. Craig Anderson, the old man in goal, was out because of something called body maintenance.
Quickly latching on to this genteel way of describing recovery work in progress, I decided to let you know that More to Come is taking a summer break for body maintenance. Or perhaps the better way to phrase it in my case would be body, mind, and soul maintenance.
There is no injury involved with the staff at More to Come, but a sabbath respite is both biblical but practical.* Last year’s summer hiatus from blogging worked out so well that I decided to extend the 2021 break over July and August to rest, reset, and focus on other projects, including some special attention on those pandemic pounds. This is it until the Tuesday after Labor Day (7 September for the international readers) unless something momentous comes along.**
Should you want to take this time and explore what you may have missed on the blog, what follows are the top reader favorites from 2021 (so far).
Three of the top posts came from the less than smooth transition of power in the U.S.
The Hill We Climb — Amanda Gormon’s poem was among the best moments in an inaugural ceremony of hope and historic firsts.
Summer is the time of outdoor music festivals. Following a year of coronavirus lockdown, many musicians are able to return to the road and play in front of fans for the first time in months.
As More toCome heads into our summer hiatus, we’ll highlight several of the festivals I’ve attended through the years along with the songs from favorite bands that are guaranteed to set off a buzz in the crowds. Perhaps one or more will encourage you to find a nearby festival to attend.
During the 1970s, I saw the Earl Scruggs Revue — the band formed by the banjo legend with his sons following the breakup of Flatt and Scruggs — at multiple festivals. No matter the venue or audience, the final tune was always the Scruggs classic, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, performed here with Gary and Randy Scruggs, fiddler Vassar Clements, and dobro master Josh Graves.
During our fifteen years in Staunton, I often attended the local Oak Grove festival. There we heard a number of wonderful musicians — Guy Clark, Bryan Bowers, Stephen Bennett, Claire Lynch, Trapezoid, Bill Staines — in this intimate, wooded setting. For many of those years local favorites Robin and Linda Williams were the hosts, and their song (co-written with Jerome Clark) Rolling and Rambling (The Death of Hank Williams), is always a favorite.
Oak Grove 2021 is scheduled for August 27-29 and will feature Robin and Linda Williams, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, and others.
The tradition-plus festival begun in 1988 by Doc Watson following the death of his son and long-time musical partner Merle was my festival of choice for many years beginning in the early 2000s. I’ve heard countless bands and unexpected collaborations there through the years, but the 2012 festival really stands out for me.
The Steel Wheels were Thursday’s bridge on the Cabin Stage between two more famous main stage artists. The crowds were headed for the food tents when lead singer Trent Wagler slammed his cymbal stick into the floor and the band went into Rain in the Valley. People literally turned around in the aisle and went back to their seats to hear the 30-minute set that led to full crowds at other venues whenever they performed throughout the weekend.
Merlefest 2012 was also the final one for the 89-year-old festival patriarch Doc Watson, who passed away a month after the event. Beginning with a 1974 performance at the old Exit/In in Nashville, I saw Doc live more times than any other performer in traditional and acoustic roots music. This video from 1979 of his signature Tennessee Stud — with Merle on guitar, T. Michael Coleman on bass, and Marty Stuart on mandolin — is the Doc I remember from my younger days. Tennessee Stud, which he made famous on the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, often closed out his show in those years.
Finally, Sam Bush had played at each of the 24 previous Merlefests before 2012, and you figured he had something up his sleeve for the 25th anniversary. The Sam Bush Band opened the final set on Friday evening with John Hartford’s Vamp inthe Middle. After a few more songs, Sam introduced Derek Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi of the Tedeschi Trucks Band — Saturday evening’s headliner. They kicked off Bell Bottom Blues and the night, which was already special, turned magical. Next came Gimme Shelter, followed by Bush bringing out his former New Grass Revival band mates Bela Fleck and John Cowan for a tribute to the late Levon Helm. When the music morphed into the old standard Cripple Creek, banjo wizards Fleck and Scott Vestal traded licks and choruses. The crowd was buzzing about the show the rest of the weekend.
Red Wing, held in Mount Solon in the splendor of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, is another festival I’ve attended on multiple occasions. The event is hosted by The Steel Wheels, and they always have a great set. One of the fan favorites is Long Way to Go, with their extended jam in the middle that takes a ride into the frenetic finish.
Sarah Jarosz has played Red Wing on several occasions, both as a solo act and as part of I’m With Her. A masterful song interpreter, I’ve always favored her version of Dylan’s Ring Them Bells.
Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen gave a spirited performance late one evening at Red Wing. I enjoy the energy in their instrumental M80, which they played that evening to the delight of the festival’s night owls.
The incomparable Claire Lynch has played Oak Grove, Merlefest, Red Wing, and the Institute of Musical Traditions shows here in the Washington area. I’ve attended them all and can say that she never disappoints. Claire will often end her performances with one of her fan favorites, the extended version of Wabash Cannonball, with an encore that was written by my cousin Hershey Reeves, Your Presence is My Favorite Gift.
Besides The Steel Wheels and Sarah Jarosz, other headliners at this year’s festival on July 9-11 include The Tim O’Brien Band, and the amazing instrumental group Hawktail.
Let’s take it home
Based on the east coast, I haven’t had the pleasure of attending the iconic festivals in the west, such as Telluride and San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Nonetheless, I’ve heard great acoustic music through the years at venues from Annapolis to Charlottesville, Nashville to Claremont (California). Among those musicians who always pleases, Jerry Douglas is one of my personal favorites, especially when he rips into Who’s Your Uncle, the closing song of one of his recent sets in Annapolis and heard here live in the Bluegrass Underground show on PBS.
Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien display incredible songwriting talent, improvisational genius, and vocal chops in all their performances. Long Time Gone, which the Chicks made a hit, was written by Scott. This live version from Raleigh has some tasty interplay of mandolin and guitar beginning at the 3:33 mark.
Tony Rice is another musician I enjoyed watching countless times in multiple venues before his death last Christmas Day. One of his most memorable shows for me was at the old Lime Kiln Theatre in Lexington, Virginia. While the Tony Rice Unit often closed their show by playing the fiddle tune Sally Goodin, it is hard to get more of a crowd favorite than Freeborn Man as played by Rice at Merlefest 1991 with Mark O’Connor, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Mark Schatz
Another festival favorite from that same performance is Sam Bush, singing of the demise of William McKinley, in the White House Blues. Fun historical fact: this was the song Bill Monroe chose to have Earl Scruggs play on his debut with Monroe’s band on the Grand Ole Opry. Many musical historians point to that event as when bluegrass music was founded.
It may be difficult to find a better festival favorite than Nickel Creek’sThe Fox, which closed all their shows (and their reunion show) for years. Depending on how they were feeling, the mid-song jam could go on for a looong time. My daughter Claire and I heard this version at Merlefest 2006*, when they only did a “modified” jam (i.e., under 10 minutes). Check out Thile’s mandolin solo beginning at 4:04. I remember it well. I remember it when they closed out the show in Charlottesville from the Farewell for Now tour in 2007. And I remember it as they closed their 25th Reunion Tour shows in 2014. A true signature tune, The Fox is a festival favorite that never grows old.
Enjoy some live music this summer.
More to come…
Image: The Hillside Stage — ready for another Album Hour with the Waybacks and friends — at Merlefest, by DJB.
*No matter what the description says below the video, this was from Merlefest. Just look at the signage on the stage.
Late in 2019, a series of pithy proverbs — those bursts of truth in 20 words or so — debuted on the blog and were brought together in a post entitled More to Consider.* Six months later we had A plethora of pithy proverbs followed — as 2020 turned into 2021 — with A profusion of pithy proverbs. So as long as this segment is sponsored by the letter P, we’ll take a look at A plenitude of pithy proverbs for the first half of 2021.
My love for the short and to-the-point adage comes from my Grandmother Brown, who was known to say things such as, “The graveyard is full of folks who thought the world couldn’t get along without them.” Good advice for those of us who like to share our opinions. Speaking of which, Ryan Holiday, who writes about the philosophy of the Stoics, reminds us that we don’t have to opine about everything we notice.
“Remember you have the power to have no opinion.”
The next two quotes came during the rather difficult (to state it mildly) transition of power in Washington. Journalist and writer Anand Giridharadas reminded us that there are progressives and there are reactionaries. Writer John Stoehr framed this battle as one in which different groups have different relationships to the law.
“We are living through a revolt against the future. The future will prevail.”
“In defending Trump, (the Senate Republicans) are declaring loyalty not to America as it stands, but to an imaginary nation-within-a-nation, a white-power confederacy of the mind and spirit seeking to carve out a country where a minority is protected but not bound by the law while a majority is bound but not protected by it.“
As the Biden administration took office, we began to see the difficult but doable path forward. The quote from President Kennedy was a reminder that almost all good things are hard. American poet and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died in February, had a beautiful reminder of what love can bring to a country and a civilization, if we allow it to bloom.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”
President John F. Kennedy
“There’s always hope in love. Love and hate are viruses. Love can make a civilization bloom and hate can kill a civilization.”
“People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but to themselves.”
“Hope is hearing the music of the future; belief is dancing to it.”
The Rev. Dr. Francis Wade
In reading how the Germans have dealt with their history of Nazism much better than the U.S. has dealt with slavery and racism, I came across this important quote from 1985 by the president of West Germany. It reminded me of the continued danger in our country.
“Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risk of infection.“
Richard von Weizsäcker, President of West Germany
Poet, Emily Dickinson scholar, and friend Judith Farr passed away in June of this year. At her funeral the last page of the service leaflet had her 2019 poem What Lies Beyond, which ends with the following lines:
“To live with ugliness, we must hallow loveliness / the more, remembering that it often springs / from mud into light-filled air.”
Judith Farr from “What Lies Beyond”
Click on the link to read her obituary. Judith Farr was a remarkable woman.
Jazz great Miles Davis, who adopted a variety of musical directions in the 20th century, had a great quote about the need to “just do it.”
“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”
And finally, another good bit of advice from a Stoic philosopher.
“The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so we might listen more and talk less.”
*To capture some of my favorite sayings without having to write an entire blog post, I created a feature on More to Come that I labeled “More to Consider.” I update these quick bursts of truth every couple of weeks.
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy.
Giridharadas takes us to the final days of March “in the crushing year of 2020.”
We knew by then that a plague was upon us. Like me, maybe you had had your first meetings canceled. Maybe your kids were home, climbing on your lap during a novel thing called Zoom meetings. Maybe you were watching those handwashing videos — the ones that made me realize I had never done it right ever before. Maybe you were discovering that, despite getting no respect at work, you were suddenly now something called “essential.” Maybe you were among the early ones to fall ill with Covid, or you knew someone close who did, or you once dated a guy whose sister knew someone who works with a lady whose chiropractor got it.
It was March. It was early. It was the beginning of the beginning.“
After 423 days of agony and loss, the United States had reached — on May 29, 2021 — the point where the Covid death count had fallen below where it stood at the beginning, on the last day of that fateful month of March 2020.
As talk intensifies about a return to normal, Giridharadas asks his readers to consider themselves as runners who begin and end at the same point after a grueling race. Think about where we really stand and what we’ve learned from this experience. We have changed.
“You are stronger and more broken. Those who were running beside you may no longer be there. You are shaped and redefined by their absence. And, along the way, you saw things, thought of things, realized things, and these you now carry.“
The plague year was not only a killer, a terrorizer, and a “thief of dreams and work and fellowship and time.” It was also a teacher. We learned:
How much harder it is to work, how much harder women in particular have it, how much female brilliance we sideline, when we make childcare a luxury product.
There are no great equalizers, not even viruses — that inequity is a preexisting condition, and viruses, like so many other disasters on record, hit people according to their position in the caste hierarchy.
When we allow monopolies to corner every market, we become vulnerable to shortages and supply issues we usually associate with the Soviet Union — even as the owners of those monopolies profit from crisis.
And so many of us learned that what we’ve learned our whole lives about America is wrong.
“We learned that we in America so often fixate on a childish understanding of freedom — of negative freedom from government power, from masks, from being told what to do — that we often deprive ourselves of the no less valuable freedom to remain alive.
We learned, with apologies to Ronald Reagan, that government is not, in fact, the problem.“
Consider his full list and then think, “what will we do next?”
“(E)very so often in history, ‘the zeitgeist moment hits and persistent voices can finally be heard.‘”
Maybe this is the time those voices for meaningful change will be heard.
“‘The bare minimum requirement’ of competing in the Olympics should be ‘that you believe in the country you’re representing,’ Crenshaw (R-TX) told Fox….As if Berry, a 32-year-old native of Ferguson, Mo., the daughter of an Iraq War veteran, and a college graduate with a minor in criminal justice, must be some kind of liberty-loathing infiltrator….
Compulsory patriotism is not at all an American value; it is its own form of treachery. In fact, it’s hard to identify a braver American impulse than the one to speak freely from a platform in the face of pressure.”
Just another reason to take this moment as a prime time for transformation.
As we approach the celebration of Independence Day 2021, I turn for wisdom to a sermon more than three decades old.
Why a sermon for a secular holiday? As The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray noted when she left the practice of law in the early 1970s to become an Episcopal priest, most of the questions around inequality that we face as a nation are at their core moral issues that require reconciliation among all people. It is in community where we should affirm “the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.”
A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that I have endured, enjoyed, nodded off during, squirmed through, and been deeply moved and challenged by more than 4,500 homilies in my life.* In all those sermons from a number of exceptional priests, pastors, and mentors**, I never heard a more consistent preacher week-in-and-week-out than The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade. After moving to Washington, I was fortunate to hear Frank at St. Albans Episcopal Church from 1998 until he retired as rector in 2005. As former U.S. Senator and ordained Episcopal priest John Danforth writes in the Foreword to Rites of Our Passage: Reflections Through a Christian Year — the 2002 collection of Frank’s writings — “All his sermons are, at least, very good, and many of them are astonishingly good.” Former Senator Danforth isn’t right about everything, but he is certainly right about this.
Frank likes to say, “I believe in many things but I do not believe in coincidences.” It was no coincidence that I was given the opportunity to learn from someone so wise. In returning to re-read the entire collection, I learned anew that Frank’s timeless and clear-headed observations — about the dangers that occur when isolated minds create dead hearts, about the need to give forgiveness a chance in a world riven by violence, and how hope and joy require the action of belief if we want to live as if something good were true — are building blocks for personal growth. In today’s troubled world, Frank’s thoughts from July 1987 about the need for a new American agenda speak to our challenges.
The purpose of wealth
For most of us, wealth is relative. Wealthy people are those who have more than we do. Frank suggests we think instead of wealth in absolute terms. “It is simply what we have no matter what other people have, and what we do have is ours so that this world can be a better place.” Wealth is there so all of life can be better. Americans could begin to think about wealth in a new way.
Power and community
“Giving up individual power to serve a greater and common good” should also be a part of our new July 4th agenda. That happened in Philadelphia in the Constitutional Convention when several states gave up individual power to serve a common good, the community. As we move to a majority-minority nation, “how we share the power that we have” in order to “share life” with others will be our question.
The goal of justice
And Frank — as an equal-opportunity offender of the status quo — notes that justice, for many of us, is “the idea of letting everyone be equal at the starting lines of life, letting everyone be equal before the law.” However, Biblical justice in Frank’s telling shows “a heavy favoritism to the poor, the hurt, and the lost,” and suggests that we should want everybody together not at the starting line, but at the finish line.
In considering this new agenda, we may need to see “life as a pilgrimage rather than a race.”
Frank believes that “the basic task of a Christian is to make other people’s lives better.” That’s a very different vision than one we hear from money-hoarding mega church televangelists, prosperity gospel hucksters, patriarchal bullies, or fire-and-brimstone moralists. If we think about our wealth in different ways, share our power and influence with people very different from us, and begin to think of justice “as more than where people start in life and more of how we and they live life,” each of us — no matter our faith beliefs — will go a long way towards making people’s lives better.
And that is a real American dream.
More to come…
*Growing up Baptist, we went to church on Sunday morning and evening, for Wednesday evening prayer service, plus at least one week-long “revival” each year. I joined the Episcopal church at age 22 to get a life!
With the recent focus on China and its relationship to the U.S., this Soundtrack highlights a clawhammer banjo player who has spent two decades working at the intersection of past and future, using her skills as a musician and her respect for the culture and people to further and deepen connections with the Chinese.
Abigail Washburn was “miraculously offered a record deal in the halls of a bluegrass convention in Kentucky,” some 16 years ago. That encounter “changed her trajectory from becoming a lawyer in China to a traveling folk musician.” Shortly thereafter, many fans were introduced to Washburn’s beautiful voice, instrumental chops, and songwriting skills with Uncle Earl.
Videos of Washburn’s work with the band include The Last Goodbye and the acapella Easy In the Early (‘Til Sundown).
Washburn’s website bio describes the range of her work since that fateful day at the bluegrass convention.
“Her music ranges from the “all-g’earl” string band sound of Uncle Earl to her bi-lingual solo release Song of the Traveling Daughter (2005), to the mind-bending “chamber roots” sound of the Sparrow Quartet, to the rhythms, sounds and stories of Afterquake, her fundraiser CD for the Sichuan earthquake victims. The New York Times praised her 2011 release, City of Refuge, written with collaborator Kai Welch, saying the the songs “mingle Appalachia and folk-pop, with tinges of Asia and Bruce Springsteen.” As a duo with her husband — 15-time Grammy award winning banjo virtuoso, Béla Fleck — Abigail has recorded two albums: a self-titled debut that earned the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album and Echo in the Valley. Her most recent record is a self-titled debut collaboration with composer and guzheng virtuoso, Wu Fei, and sonically blends traditional Chinese and Appalachian folk tunes.“
A new take on the traditional tune Shotgun Blues, is from Washburn and Fleck’s first album together and showcases the percussive possibilities of the banjo. The Reverb video is their discussion of the differences in the three-finger bluegrass and clawhammer style. And then you see a “banjo bass” (and hear some great Washburn vocals along with Fleck’s slide banjo) on My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains, filmed at their house during the pandemic.
Washburn has a long interest in blending traditional American and Chinese music to further understanding between cultures. With her Chinese language ability, Washburn was, before the pandemic,
…one of the few foreign artists currently touring China independently and regularly. She completed a month-long tour of China’s Silk Road…and was named a TED fellow and gave a talk at the 2012 TED Convention in Long Beach about building US-China relations through music. In March of 2013, she was commissioned by New York Voices and the NY Public Theater to write and debut a theatrical work titled Post-American Girl, which draws from her 17-year relationship with China and addresses themes of expanding identity, cultural relativism, pilgrimage, the universal appeal of music and opening the heart big enough to fold it all in. Abigail was recently named the first US-China Fellow at Vanderbilt University and is an Andrew W. Mellon DisTIL Fellow at Carolina Performing Arts at UNC-Chapel Hill.“
Washburn’s 2020 album with Chinese artist Wu Fei is a compelling showcase for these collaborations.
“Merging American old-time music and Chinese folksong, Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn features gorgeous, impressionistic renditions of traditional material from the hills of Appalachia to the prairies of Xinjiang region, each tune flowing seamlessly into the next. The effervescent resonances of Wu’s guzheng zither dance around Washburn’s expressive banjo playing, their voices intertwining English and various Chinese dialects. This album recasts “world music” as music of our shared world, highlighting our shared humanity and the transformative power of song.”
Having always loved Washburn’s version of Banjo Pickin’ Girl, I couldn’t resist the repurposed live take of Banjo Guzheng Pickin’ Girl.
A rendition of the beautiful Bright Morning Stars, with vocals by Washburn and Kai Welch, will end this Soundtrack. The Erhu solo is by local Lanzhou, China artist Fang Ningping. “This performance was dedicated to over 20 children who died in a school van accident near Lanzhou five days before the 2011 concert. The van accident had unleashed a wave of public fury around the dangerous conditions for underprivileged school children in China.”
Abigail Washburn’s “efforts to share U.S. music in China, and Chinese music in the U.S., exist within a hope that cultural understanding and the communal experience of beauty and sound rooted in tradition will lead the way to a richer existence.” It is a hope we can all share.
Next week will be my first in-person baseball game since October of 2019 and Game 3 of the World Series. The Nats lost that contest and the following two home games to the Astros, but won all four games in Houston to become World Series Champions.
Much has happened between that October and July of 2021. While working to fill the hole in my baseball heart, I am more than ready to experience live baseball again with family and friends.
“These are not myths that animate believers into a shared sense of camaraderie and direction. They are myths that divide and instill a sense of superiority over others.”
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent books or articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy.
Malik has produced an exceptional book that blends insightful analysis and reporting. Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency in 2016 led her to write, but she notes that our myths have been in place long before Trump arrived. Instead of one single occurrence, our myths are a culmination of events.
Malik includes six chapters covering the most influential myths in America today, stories where “history, race, gender, and classical liberal values are being leveraged to halt any disruption of a centuries-old hierarchy that is paying dividends for fewer and fewer people.”
Sudanese-born and trained in the world of finance — where facts are important — Malik opens with an examination of academia, the publishing world, and the journalism industry in the “myth of the reliable narrator.” Unreliable narrators from those fields have fed us all the other myths and have remined closely aligned with power, generally without accountability.
That free thought is being sacrificed to oversensitivity to gender, race, and sexual orientation is one of the oldest of contemporary political myths, she states in the “myth of a political correctness crisis.” It “begins with a grievance creation, moves on to fabrication, and ends in diversion.” Like all the toxic myths that underpin our age of discontent, its starts with the premise that it’s all gone too far.
The “myth of the free speech crisis” is in reality seeking to make those on the right free from the consequences of their expression. In the “myth of harmful identity politics,” Malik points out that Brexit “Leavers” and Trump’s “left-behinders” are all demonstrating aggressive identity politics while mythologizing its harmfulness. This twisting of stories and negation of facts is only “nominally ideological,” as noted by one reviewer. “(M)oney and power usually lie at the heart of such scheming, and Trump’s rampant, transparent deceit is only the apotheosis of American’s long history of the grift.”
Many male progressive readers can absorb Malik’s work and nod approvingly, until faced with the penultimate chapter on the “myth of gender equality.” She puts this myth just before the conclusion because “it illustrates an important point — the enemies of change are not always obvious.”
“Whether it is political correctness, freedom of speech, or the whitewashing of history, these ideas are held widely in society and cut across political orientation, gender, and race. That’s what makes them so insidious. The myth of gender equality isn’t just propped up by cartoonish bad men who hoard the spoils of patriarchy. It’s held dearly by the ‘good’ men as well.”
Then Malik goes further.
“(W)hile men can embrace the need for efforts that lead to fairness, such as equal pay, they have a much harder time with their own loss of centrality. To these men, the end of the patriarchy is actually the end of the world.”
There is a lot of work for a man to do in self-reflection and the taking of responsibility for changing a system that he did not create. Many of us suffer from “privilege blindness,” where those who have enjoyed privilege confuse it with fairness. And yet, much as Heather McGhee has done with racism in The Sum of Us, Malik makes the strong case that “a system that is unfair to women results in its own injustices to men.” A “boomerang effect” is at play where myths are ultimately bad for everyone. A reviewer again notes that Malik breaks down the complex dynamics at hand “with efficiency — but also with wit, warmth, and charm.”
In her powerful conclusion, Malik writes that myths “work hard to prevent change from happening. They are powerful. But they are not all-powerful.” The strength of the myths is not in facts, but in the narratives, so it is impossible to fight fake facts with other facts. What is needed, Malik asserts, are new stories that are not just the correction of old stories, but are visions that assert that “for societies to evolve, an old order must change.”
We will get there.
Two articles which focus on harmful myths are also worth your consideration. Writing in The New York Times, journalist and author Anand Giridharadas takes on Warren Buffett and the Myth of the ‘Good Billionaire and notes that the “worst billionaires are the Good Billionaires. The sort who make it seem like the problem is the distortion of the system when, in fact, the problem is the system.” And Ed Ayers in Medium suggests that The Classroom is a Community of Trust, writing that “systemic racism is all too evident not only in the neighborhoods where (students) live, but in the very schools where they learn….Ignoring, denying, or raging at those facts does not make them go away. What it does do is make school irrelevant at best, and fraudulent at worst.”
Recommendations tell us as much about the person making the suggestion as they do about the individual or thing being referenced. With that in mind, let’s consider integrity, bias, knowledge, and intent as important aspects of both the giving and receiving of recommendations.
Your word is all you have
Early in my professional career, I had a bad experience that shaped my thinking on recommendations of all types. After receiving a strong reference from an applicant’s most recent employer, I hired that individual only to find they were not up to the job. I subsequently discovered that the former employer had actually let this person go as well.
The integrity of your word can be so easily lost when you make a recommendation that does not align with the truth or your experience. With referrals, one can demur or highlight both strengths and weaknesses in order to ensure that your references are made with integrity.
And if you decide to include someone as a reference on a job application, common courtesy and common sense suggest you first ask their permission.
Watch your bias
Job referrals are, of course, a more serious topic than my book or music reviews. Let’s admit up front that some groups are especially privileged when it comes to professional references. Women and people of color in general have been badly served through the decades by hiring practices that sought out applicants who looked, thought, and behaved just like the overwhelmingly male and white hiring managers. Through the years I came to realize this pattern of injustice, but reflect on my own role without much pride. I worked to change, but was clearly a latecomer to the process.
Consider the source
When my grandmother would hear something that sounded off, she would say “consider the source.” That’s good advice when pondering any recommendation or referral. When we solicit recommendations and thoughts only from people in our circle of acquaintances, we often forget this counsel and overlook their lack of expertise on a subject simply because we know them. That can easily lead straight down the good-old-boy-network rabbit hole and of hearing just what you want to hear. We can all do better in checking sources that go beyond our personal electronic rolodex and our level of comfort.
When we seek out a referral from someone we don’t know, it should push us to research that individual to determine what she knows, appreciates, and has accomplished, just as we should see if the book reviewer who takes a strong stand for a new work has experiences that would lead us to trust his judgement.
Check your motive
In an earlier post on feedback, I suggested that one should stop to think about why you believe it is important for you to impart some of your wisdom on another person. When our advice comes “free of charge,” we may believe we have the best of intentions. The one receiving the input may have an entirely different take on the conversation.
When at my best, I work to consider the other person in both professional and personal situations. Will this position be a good fit? Will this book have meaning to others? When a long-time and very thoughtful friend told me that her husband was reading Democracy in Chains based on my online recommendation, I felt secure that I had fairly conveyed its value and that my motive was clear. After slogging through the occasional dud of a book, I generally don’t post a review. On the other hand, my Weekly Reader and Saturday Soundtrack sections have an aura of “buyer beware” that floats over those offerings. They won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
Recommendations are one way we represent our standards and values to others. Don’t be afraid to tell me what you think, but make it clear and reflective of who you are. If you happen to be a bluegrass-loving, classical music fan, I’ll think you’re amazingly open-minded. But then, as grandmother would say, consider the source!
Long among my favorites, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien is a mainstay on the acoustic, bluegrass, and roots music scene. Born in Wheeling, WV in 1954, O’Brien first came to prominence with the bluegrass band Hot Rize which played regularly from 1978 to 1990, was resurrected in 2014, and which continues to have an outsized influence on the acoustic music world.
“Steeped in bluegrass tradition…Hot Rize’s music was and is equally informed by a taste for the music of Leadbelly and Freddie King, swing, old-time Appalachia and more in ways that mirror the broad sweep of Bill Monroe’s influences.“
From the band’s 40th anniversary bash — joined by friends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Stuart Duncan — Hot Rize performs Radio Boogie with O’Brien on the lead vocals.
Like many of us, O’Brien listened to a wide range of music growing up. And then he heard Doc Watson.
“O’Brien…absorbed a broad range of American music growing up, from country and rockabilly icons like Jerry Reed and Jerry Lee Lewis backed by local ringers at the famous Grand Ole Opry-style Wheeling Radio Jamboree to Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Dave Brubeck at summer concerts in the park. His parents had season tickets to the Wheeling Symphony and brought along the young O’Brien and his sister Mollie, who would become his first band mate; they also saw Ray Charles and the Beatles when they came through town. O’Brien took it all in, but something clicked when he first caught Doc Watson on TV as a teenager: that versatility, and the distillation of so much into the framework of traditional sounds, would be one of his biggest inspirations. ‘Doc Watson’s a great roadmap for anybody, really, because he played all kinds of music and made it sound like Doc Watson music,’ said O’Brien. ‘Of course, people put him in a bluegrass-folk music pigeonhole, but he really brought all of it together, and that’s kind of what I was interested in.'”
One of the loveliest remembrances of Doc Watson was one O’Brien recorded at the Kennedy Center shortly after Doc’s death.
After Hot Rize retired from the road, O’Brien became a sought after session musician; a songwriter with hits covered by Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks and the Chicks; and a musical collaborator with a range of talented individuals including Darrell Scott. Always ready to use music to make a point, Keep Your Dirty Lights On is about mountaintop removal, something very important to two men from West Virginia and Kentucky.
“If you’ve got money in your pocket and a switch on the wall / we’ll keep your dirty lights on.”
One of my favorite O’Brien albums is 1996’s Red on Blond, featuring string band covers of Bob Dylan songs. This live version of Tombstone Blues, played with an all-star band, burns down the house! The O’Brien version of Maggie’s Farm is also a stellar remake of a Dylan classic.
O’Brien has always enjoyed exploring his Irish heritage as found on both sides of the Atlantic in albums such as The Crossing and Fiddler’s Green. From that second album, Look Down that Lonesome Road, heard here with a Transatlantic band, is a good example of this part of his catalog.
During the pandemic, O’Brien joined a group of Nashville pickers to back up Sturgill Simpson in his hit two-volume bluegrass album Cuttin’ Grass.
O’Brien has a new album coming out this month entitled He Walked On. It is a deeply personal look at getting through our trying times.
“‘He Walked On’ is an expansive portrayal of the nation from its beginnings to the present day through a series of musical snapshots, each training its lens from a different angle: humor, humanity, solidarity, grace. The Latin-tinged “El Comedor,” co-written with O’Brien’s fiancée Jan Fabricius, reflects on time the couple spent last year at the Mexican border near Tucson, visiting with a grassroots humanitarian group that offered water and food to hopeful immigrants waiting for asylum. With ‘We’re In The Same Boat, Brother,’ written by ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime’ lyricist Yip Harburg, O’Brien reaches back nearly 80 years for a call to solidarity that still feels timely today.“
That’s How Every Empire Falls is also from He Walked On, and here O’Brien is not only covering an important tune for our times, but he is also recognizing his friend, the late John Prine, who had a famous cover of this song.
The Tim O’Brien Band is on tour this summer. They’ll be in Baltimore on July 9th and at the Red Wing Roots Music Festival in Mount Solon, VA on July 10th, before heading out to Colorado.