Two Unexpected Books for These Times

The Immortal Irishman

The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan

It wasn’t until I was well into the second of two books I’ve devoured in the past few weeks that the timeliness of these very different works dawned on me.  Nothing in either the biography or novel – both released in 2016 – would have suggested that they were important books for our time, much less that there would be common threads.

And as a bonus, both are terrific reads.

Timothy Egan has produced a page-turning biography that captures the incredible saga of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced Mar), one of the most famous Irish Americans of all time.  Egan – one of my favorite writers (see the “Writers I Enjoy” list on the side of my blog page) – has previously written highly readable and well-researched histories on the Dust Bowl (The Worst Hard Time) and the founding of the U.S. Forest Service (The Big Burn).  In The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, Egan bring Francis Meagher’s time and story to life.

Meagher was born to comfort in Ireland, but left that life to lead a failed uprising against the British during the Great Hunger of the 1840s.  In this part of the book, Egan’s description of the horrors of the potato famine and the English starvation of the Irish is visceral and hard-to-forget. For his part in the Young Ireland uprising, Meagher is “transported” to a Tasmanian exile on the other side of the world, yet escapes and comes to America where he is instantly hailed as the most famous Irish American in the land.

The 1850s in America have eerie parallels to today, with sectional divisions, strong partisan divides, and politicians who ignore the fundamental issues facing the country.  In the decades before the Civil War, the Know-Nothing Party – one of the predecessors to Trump’s Republican Party today – brought a nasty, nativist strain to politics that blamed immigrants – and especially Irish immigrants – for all the nation’s ills.  Irish-Americans were attacked in their homes, legislation blocked their arrival, and bigotry was both accepted and prevalent throughout the land.

Francis Meagher strode onto the stage and – through the power of his story and oratory – because a leader of Irish Americans in New York.  When the South (including a large number of Irish immigrants) fired on Ft. Sumter, Meagher helped recruit Irish Americans to join the Union cause.  In short order General Meagher was the head of the Irish Brigade, which was asked again and again to go into the worst situations in battles and save the day after the blunders of the Union’s incompetent generals.  The worst example was the charge they were forced to endure up Mayre’s Heights into the teeth of the Confederate Army at Fredericksburg.  The great Irish musician John Doyle captured that story in his terrific tune Clear the Way (with the music beginning after a short history lesson at about 2:48 in this video).

 

Disillusioned with the war, Meagher moves to Montana to become the territorial governor.  Hoping to finally make his fortune and create a New Ireland in the frontier, Meagher instead finds himself fighting injustice in this lawless territory.  The story ends with a mysterious death at age forty-three.  Egan provides compelling new information to perhaps help put a coda on this amazing life.

The Immortal Irishman is a first-rate work.  The relevance is that he reminds us that the nativist strain we face today has a long and sad history in the U.S.

Homegoing

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I expected to enjoy Timothy Egan’s work.  I had no idea what to expect when I bought a young writer’s first novel on a whim – literally because a woman was standing at the book table at the Politics and Prose members sale and said, “This is a great read.”  We talked about other things she liked and her tastes seem to align with mine…so I took a flyer.

Am I glad I did.

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a very impressive debut novel.  The story of two half sisters born in eighteenth century Ghana, and the families their different paths produced, is epic and emotional.  Gyasi skips back and forth between the family that stays in Ghana and the other one – unbeknownst to the first – who is sold off into slavery in the U.S.  She follows each, generation after generation, through wars in Africa and slavery and the Great Migration in the U.S.

The pace is brisk and there are multiple story lines to maintain.  The reader is helped along by the family tree in the front of the book, and somewhere along the way I found myself drawn into the rhythm of the story being told on both sides of the Atlantic.  Some reviewers have suggested that the African chapters are the stronger of the two strains of storytelling, but I found that to be a minor quibble.  Certainly the chapters about the family members sold into slavery are more familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less compelling.

Homegoing is yet another epic reminder of how a country that proclaims freedom was built on conquest and slavery.  So many times I came up from an extended period of reading this fascinating work, only to be faced with what seems like never-ending examples of bigotry and conquest coming from the evening news.

Two very different books.  Two excellent writers.  Two works that help us see that the national story is truly much more complex, layered, and difficult than we often realize.

Highly recommended.

More to come…

DJB

The Preferred Pre-Inaugural Concert

Lovett Hiatt Tickets

My ticket in the nose bleed section at Strathmore

Earlier this evening, I joined a full house at Strathmore Music Hall as we made our choice for a different  pre-inaugural concert from that on the national mall.

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt are two of the best songwriters and (especially in Lovett’s case) song interpreters in the Americana field.  The beautiful sound and setting at Strathmore was perfect for their two-and-one-half hour acoustic set on Thursday evening.

They played their hits.  They played unrecorded new songs.  They bantered.  They played songs by other songwriters. And they did it with such ease and obvious affection for each other that the time flew by.

Hiatt’s voice is getting older and doesn’t hit the notes like he once did.  But that really didn’t matter in this setting.

Here’s a video of a tune they played tonight, Lovett’s “She’s Not Lady.”  Enjoy!

More to come…

DJB

A Bit of Shenandoah Valley Musical Magic in the Big Apple

T&B Opus 65

Taylor & Boody Opus 65 at Grace Church NYC

Even in New York City, it doesn’t take much to realize how small the world can be at times.

Candice and I had a flashback to our wonderful 15 years of living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia when we realized that Grace Church – just four blocks from our friends’ apartment in Greenwich Village – is home to one of the most astounding Taylor & Boody organs (Opus 65) I’ve seen.  (More on that in a minute.) George Taylor and John Boody are longtime friends as well as world-class organbuilders, and as soon as I found this on the Grace Church website, it was clear where we would be on Sunday morning.

It all started coming back as we entered the church.  Candice and I had watched this organ being installed through John Boody’s Facebook page.  Kate Harrington – our friend and the wonderful daughter of dear friends Jim and Constance Harrington – was one of the pipe makers for this organ and helped with the installation.  Andrew, when he was at Brown University, stopped by to see the organ being installed and chatted with John and George.  We knew this organ.

So today was book-ended by two wonderful services of music on a magical organ.

 

North chancel case

The north chancel case

This morning, we went to a Eucharist and heard the choirmaster and organist – Dr. Patrick Allen – take the instrument through its paces with a beautiful prelude and postlude, a wonderful improvised intro to In the Bleak Midwinter as well as a thoughtful rendering of Lift Every Voice and Sing in celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

We returned this afternoon for an hour-long organ “meditation” (part of Grace’s gift to the city, six days a week).  And this is where this beautiful, 77-stop instrument was allowed to really  shine.

Dr. Patrick Allen at the console

Dr. Patrick Allen at the console of Opus 65

 

Candice and Patrick Allen with Opus 65

Patrick Allen demonstrates the different pipe voices to Candice at Grace Church

Patrick (by this time we had met him following the morning service and were on a first name basis), had programmed a Sunday afternoon meditation that called on different eras of music and different colors from the instrument.  Pieces by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, Johann Pachelbel, J.S. Bach, Gerre Hancock, and Louis Vierne were featured.  Bach’s “Präludium und Fuge in e-moll, BWV 533” sounded right at home on this organ, while the “Air” by Gerre Hancock – a composer I was not familiar with* – was quiet and meditative: a perfect fit for a late afternoon respite in the bustling city.

Opus 61

Opus 61 – a continuo organ – at Grace Church NYC

As we talked with Patrick and looked at the two beautiful instruments at Grace (they also have a small continuo – Opus 61), I began thinking about how many of the 73 (to date) Taylor & Boody organs I had seen in my lifetime.  While I won’t try to see them all (this doesn’t equal my quest to visit all 32 major league baseball stadiums), I still am off to a good start.  Here’s the list so far (with the ones I’ve heard live in bold font):

  • Opus 3 – Westminster Presbyterian Church, Charlottesville, VA
  • Opus 11 – St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, Beaufort, SC
  • Opus 24 – Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, Staunton, VA
  • Opus 27 – St. Thomas Episcopal Church Fifth Avenue, New York City, NY
Opus 27 at St. Thomas

Taylor and Boody Opus 27 at St. Thomas 5th Avenue in NYC (photo credit: Taylor & Boody)

  • Opus 34 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA (The organ in our home church in Staunton, which includes some walnut from a tree that we cut down in our side yard and donated to the project – we visit “our” organ every time we stop in at Trinity.)
Taylor and Boody Organ in Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA (photo credit: Taylor & Boody)

Taylor and Boody Organ in Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA (photo credit: Taylor & Boody)

David Tannenberg Organ

The restored 1800 David Tannenberg Organ in Old Salem

  • Opus 47 – 1798 David Tannenberg Organ, Winston-Salem, NC
  • Opus 61 – Grace Church in New York City, New York City, NY
  • Opus 65 – Grace Church in New York City, New York City, NY
  • Opus 72 – Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, MD
John Boody points to features on Opus 72 following the inaugural concert at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church

John Boody points to features on Opus 72 following the inaugural concert at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church

Which makes 10 out of 73…and some I haven’t seen are pretty easy to visit (such as Opus 70 at the Virginia Theological Seminary).  Perhaps I’ll set a goal to see one-quarter of these instruments in my lifetime.  That sounds like a good bucket list number.  And as long as George, John, and their talented staff of organbuilders continues to turn out beautiful instruments, I’ll just keep stretching that goal.

South chancel case and console

The south chancel case and console of the Grace Church NYC organ

Thanks George, John, Patrick and all for a wonderful gift to Grace Church, the city, and two travelers who got a bit homesick for the valley while in the Big Apple.

More to come…

DJB

*After posting this, Andrew texted me to say  that Gerre Hancock was one of the best improvisers and American organists ever and the long-time organist at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue.  Several friends of Andrew studied under him.

Not My Average Radio Interview

Macon musical history

A bit of Macon musical history

Folks in Macon, Georgia, take their musical roots seriously.  (Think Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers, Little Richard.)  So on Friday morning when I was booked for an interview on WNEX, The Creek – a new Macon radio station featuring Southern roots music and local issues – I assumed it would be different from the local NPR stations where I normally find myself talking about preservation.

I was right.  And (with the possible exception of my time on the Honolulu public radio station), it turned out to be much more fun than my average NPR radio interview!

We were in town to launch our National Treasures campaign for the Ocmulgee National Monument.  Lands affiliated with the Ocmulgee National Monument have been home to Native Americans for more than 17,000 years.  However, over recent decades the places with ties to the site have been threatened by urban sprawl, the subdivision of forested tracts, and ownership fragmentation. The National Trust and our partners are seeking to re-designate the monument as a historical park, expand the current boundaries, and study ways to protect related areas in the river corridor.

So I showed up at The Creek’s studio (which looked something like a well-loved fraternity house) on Friday morning with a colleague and the president of the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative.  We met Brad Evans, one of the owners, who asked a couple of questions to prep before we went on the air and indicated that they would play a tune halfway through the interview.  It came out that I was a John Prine fan, and Brad said, “What would you like to hear?”  I responded that I thought Paradise was a good cautionary tale for those who don’t take preservation seriously.  So we go into the interview, have a great conversation about why this place matters, and then Brad queues up the song by asking if Paradise was a good tune?  “Absolutely” I replied, and that familiar voice came across the speakers.

“When I was a child my family would travel, down to western Kentucky where my parents were born…”

While the song was playing, Brad asked what else we might discuss when we came back, and I suggested that we spend a bit of time talking about other National Treasure campaigns. I mentioned that I thought listeners to The Creek might enjoy our work on Nashville’s Studio A and Music Row.

Chris Stapleton - Traveller

Chris Stapleton – Traveller

So as John Prine wrapped up singing of Paradise being “five miles away from wherever I am,” we began to talk about the Music Row campaign on the air.  I noted that Studio A was not only the place where hundreds of country music classics had been recorded, but that Chris Stapleton’s Grammy award-winning album Traveller was made there after the studio was saved.  I suggested that had it been recorded anywhere else, this classic country album would have sounded different.  When it comes to recording studios – as with much else in life – place matters.

Brad wrapped up the interview and then told his audience that he had some Chris Stapleton lined up next.  I responded, “Man, you are good!” and he replied “I’m a pro – if you don’t believe me, just ask me.”  We laughed, and then away went Chris Stapleton with “Nobody to Blame.”

Oh man…if I ever get to do a preservation interview again when I can call on John Prine and Chris Stapleton for help, then you’ll know for certain I’ve died and gone to heaven.

More to come…

DJB

Observations from the Road (Or “The Deer Isle’s Locally Sourced Food and Music” Edition)

Yellow Birch Farm Dinner

With our fellow diners at the Yellow Birch Farm dinner on Deer Isle

During our first week on Deer Isle in Maine, we have jumped enthusiastically into the local food and music scene.  Sometimes the outing was planned.  At other times the opportunities were serendipitous.  But isn’t that how we are to live?

This is one long “Observations from the road…” post, which could be titled “My, Maine has so much to offer in locally sourced food and music.”

Our first two encounters with food and live music were unplanned yet set the stage for our visit.  Upon our arrival at Pilgrim’s Inn last Sunday evening, we saw someone carrying a guitar into his cabin.  After meeting Richard Perlmutter and his wife Judy the next day and determining that he did – in fact – have a guitar with him, we agreed to meet up after dinner on Monday for an impromptu jam session.

Serendipitously, we found that the Whale’s Rib Tavern was open for dinner at the Inn on Monday (we had mistakenly thought it was closed both Sunday and Monday evenings), so we quickly booked a reservation and had the first of what has become a string of terrific offerings over this past week.  I had the halibut, which was so wonderfully tasty, before we joined Richard and Judy in one of the cozy gathering places at the inn.

Fish from Whale's Rib

Fresh local seafood from the Whale’s Rib Tavern (photo credit: Pilgrim’s Inn)

Now, had I known that Richard has won multiple Grammy and national music awards, was the founder of the remarkably successful Beethoven’s Wig choral group, and has played professionally his entire career, I might have been less inclined to offer to sit down and play a few folk and popular tunes.  But as far as I knew when we started, Richard was this very easygoing and friendly person who had a nice little parlor guitar and a Martin mandolin that he was carrying with him on a “tour that’s more vacation than tour.”  To bring you up-to-date, here’s how Richard’s website describes his work:

Beethoven once said, “If my music had words it’d be a lot more popular.” His wish has come true!  Modern day “co-writer” Richard Perlmutter has added lyrics to Beethoven (and Bach, Mozart, et. al) that have propelled the works of the old longhairs to the tops of the charts, and introduced them to new audiences everywhere.

Despite the fact that he’s forgotten more music than I’ve ever known, the four of us – joined about halfway through by a family visiting from Ireland – had a delightful time playing tunes and trying to remember lyrics.  (Lesson #1:  Always bring a fake book.)  Over the course of our first 36 hours on the island, we had met the man who produced the first Nickel Creek album (when they were ten years old), played Irish tunes on the mandolin for a gentleman who loves to attend sessions back in Dublin, and had the first of several wonderful meals.  What could be better?!

Deer Isle has limited restaurant offerings, but there are several that are very, very good.  Whale’s Rib Tavern has never disappointed – for either breakfast or dinner – and we heartily recommend it for those visiting the Downeast section of Maine.  Everything is locally sourced, and the menu offers just enough for everyone to find something appealing.  We have discovered a number of favorites, but the Blue Hill rope raised mussels, roasted garlic cream, and fried leeks (especially those friend leeks) are extra tasty.

Mussels

Mussels with fried leaks at the Whale’s Rib Tavern (photo credit: Pilgrim’s Inn)

Our second evening of combining exceptional food and music came about because Candice had spent time online to scope out things to do around the island.  Stonington has both an excellent farm-to-table restaurant that overlooks the working waterfront and an active music venue across the street in the historic Opera House.  But before we made it to either one on Friday – when we had reservations – we discovered a wine tasting at Water’s Edge Wines that helped jump-start the evening.

Living in the moment, we took the time to chat with the owners – Ken and Bette Kral – while sampling some excellent wines and cheeses.  Along the way two ladies joined us at the shop and in the course of our conversation we found they – like us – were heading to Aragosta for an early dinner.  Hillary and Yvonne had been classmates in a New England boarding school some 25-30 years earlier and were spending the weekend together to catch up and enjoy Deer Isle.  Over the course of the next 24 hours we ran into them three times (it is a small island) and by the time they left to head home on Sunday we were sharing life stories and hugs in the parlor of the Pilgrim’s Inn.

Lobster ravioli

Lobster ravioli, a signature dish at Aragosta, after I’ve taken a bite or two!

The daughter of a gardener and a chef, Aragosta’s Chef Devin Finigan grew up in the kitchen and the garden in nearby Vermont.  The offerings at Aragosta are wonderful.  Candice and I split a serving of Blue Hill Bay oysters, the signature lobster ravioli and the Old Ackley Farm duck (with house gnocchi, confit, blueberries, Morgan Bay Farm bok choy and green coriander).  What a terrific meal, made all the more remarkable by the view out our window.

Stonington Harbor

View of the Stonington harbot from Aragosta

But our Friday was not yet complete, as we had tickets to the Deer Isle Jazz Festival at the Stonington Opera House.  The opening act was a terrific group of high school musicians from the George Stevens Academy.  Then they were followed by Dafnis Prieto’s Si o Si Quartet.  Oh. My. God.  What a talented musician.  What an incredible group.

Dafnis Prieto

Dafnis Prieto Si o Si Quartet (photo credit: Stonington Opera House)

Cuban-born drummer Dafnis Prieto has received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and numerous prestigious commissions and awards, all honoring the originality and craft of his work as a composer, bandleader, drummer and educator. Prieto has entered the top echelon of a new generation of artists blending Cuban and American traditions to achieve fresh aesthetic goals.

The Si o Si Quartet features longtime Prieto collaborators Manuel Valera on piano, keyboards, and melodica; Johannes Weidenmueller on Bass, and Peter Apfelbaum on tenor and soprano saxophones, bass melodica, and percussion. Si o Si is a thrillingly multifaceted ensemble, with an orchestral richness to match its rhythmic complexity and breathtaking energy.

I am not generally a “drum solo” fan…but I could have listened to and watched Prieto all night long.  He was so musical, so full of energy, and yet so seemingly effortless in his playing.  Valera stayed with him on the piano and filled out the quartet sound along with Weidenmuller.  Apfelbaum’s sax work was terrific.  I was – to put it simply – blown away to be hearing this level of music in a town of a few hundred people at best.  We met a couple at the Pilgrim’s Inn the next morning – easily identified as a jazz fan by his Downbeat t-shirt – and it turns out they have been coming to the jazz festival for years.  I just love these small summer festivals that draw such incredible musicians to such beautiful – and inspiring – places.

So Saturday rolls around and once again the serendipitous meets up with the planned.  As we were pulling into the inn after lunch, I noticed a couple of guys under a tent with guitars in hand, and remembered that the community bulletin board had a notice about “bring your instrument and play” time on Saturday afternoon next to the post office.  I joined Jim, Mike, and a third player who came later, and we worked through bluegrass and country music standards for about an hour.  Jim was “practicing” for his regular gig at 7 a.m. in Stonington at the “Church of the Morning After” – a jam session with fishermen along the waterfront.  He encouraged me to join them, but I noted that 7 a.m. services were for folks who didn’t really have a “Night Before” – and we had plans.

At virtually every restaurant on Deer Isle, we’ve seen local providers, such as 44 North Coffee (a wonderful coffee roaster right around the corner from the inn), and Yellow Birch Farm.  These local providers are keeping the best chefs supplied with locally sourced food.  And Saturday night we had plans to see those two things joined at a farm dinner at the Yellow Birch Farm.

We joined 13 other new friends (an amazing seven of us from the Washington area – including three who live in the Watergate, where my offices are located, a long-time National Trust supporter, and a couple who found rooms in local houses for the Si o Si Quartet and all the other performers at the Opera House).  We began with cocktails, followed by a farm tour and a wonderful two hours of food and conversation.  Held in the 19th-century barn that is the Greene Ziner Gallery, we were surrounded by beautiful artwork by farm owners and artists Missy Green and Eric Ziner and fortified with a fresh and well-prepared dinner.  Halibut was the main course, but I was especially taken with the tomato tart and the blueberry (of course) dessert.

Dessert at Farm Dinner

Dessert at the Yellow Birch Farm dinner

As we rolled out a bed this morning to attend church at St. Brendan the Navigator Episcopal Church (what a great choice of a saint for the Deer Isle community), we wondered what this week will bring.  But we’ve already made new friends, heard new music, and tasted some of the best of the bounty of Maine.

More to come…

DJB

And When From Death I’m Free, I’ll Sing On…

A dear friend from our days in Staunton passed away yesterday.  Ted Jordan was much too young and vibrant, but an accident claimed his life and devastated both family and friends. A scholar, gifted writer, carpenter and general contractor, Ted would do anything for anyone.  The 17 trips he took to Honduras to build schools and churches are but one example of the person he was. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Dana and his boys – Ben, Grayson, and Tim – and their families.

I was fortunate to see and talk with Ted for a good while when I was in the Shenandoah Valley last month for the Red Wing Roots Music Festival.  He was at the festival with his granddaughter, Violet and his son, Ben.  I told Candice that evening that it was such a treat to see how much joy Ted’s family brought him at this new stage in life.

There was a time where Ted and I played music together at least once a week for a decade or more.  One of our favorite tunes was the old Shaker hymn Simple Gifts, which we played as an instrumental.  I would finger-pick the melody and Ted flat-picked a lovely harmony line.  To this day, when I play that tune I hear Ted’s guitar doing its thing.

Another of our favorite tunes was Wondrous Love, where Ted played guitar along with my mandolin.  When we got to the final verse, we would sing it a capella.  Ted commented on more than one occasion that I would close my eyes for that verse and let the sound wash over me.  He was right.  There was something about singing on after being freed from death that spoke to both of us at a very deep level.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be,

And through eternity, I’ll sing on.

Sing on dear friend.  Rest in peace.

More to come…

DJB

Long Hot Summer Days

This seemed like an appropriate tune to feature on a weekend when the temperatures have approached 100 degrees, and the heat index is off the charts.

I’ve loved Sara Watkins’ version of this John Hartford tune since she released it on a solo album.  Here she plays it with her old band mates from Nickel Creek.

Sara Watkins

Sara Watkins at Red Wing Roots Festival 2015

If you want to hear Sara play this by herself, with a little Hartford-like foot-tapping rhythm thrown in, take a look here.

Enjoy…and stay cool.

More to come…

DJB