Kate here… a string of memories from June in New York and home again…
Annabelle - there's supper on the stove...
Clouds grew fat and darkly grey, bursting at the brink in bulemic ruptures of rain that wrung its watery guts from the sky overhead. Wipers darted back and forth across a hundred and seventy-eight miles. We were driving from Manhattan to Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs just north of Albany to share a show with musicians from the long ago east coast past. I hadn’t seen Walt Michael since “The Bottle Hill Boys” played in Long Valley when we were teenagers running around the hills of New Jersey. One of the fiddlers in Walt’s band was Evan Stover, another friend I hadn’t seen in twenty years.
Even in the rain Saratoga Springs is a pretty place. It’s raining hard, as hard as the day we were here in October. We pull into the parking lot next to Caffe Lena. Sarah Craig is inside, up the stairs, hanging up her slicker on a hook and greets us with hugs and a big smile. We are happy to be there. She gives us a key so we can come in and warm up while she’s out. We decide to go for a walk before we settle into the club.
There is a banner for the Art Fair across the main street and a stage with a canopy set up for a lineup of bands all day. Bluesy electric sounds from the stage party up the wet weather. Steve and I stop in at a small Thai restaurant for miso and spring rolls. After lunch we walk to the health food store, pick up a few things and then head back to Caffe Lena to get ready for the show.
Walt Michael and friends are loading in up the steps to the second floor back door into the club. Hammered dulcimer, fiddles, guitar, mandolin, banjo. We say hello and get reacquainted over details of friends in common and remedies for hand arthritis. Walt runs a highly respected music series in Maryland called “Common Ground of the Hill.” His sense of humor is dry and delivery warm. The music ahead is bound to be good.
After Joe sound checks us with the deft ear of a true pro, we fine tune and get ready. The house is full and the vibe is friendly. We open our set with the ukuleles and “My Love” and move through another half dozen songs or so. People listen here. It’s a good night to be here. We’re received warmly with smiles and nods. Then Walt takes the stage with his two fiddlers (Evan showed up just in time), dulcimer, banjo, mandolin and guitar. The sound is sublime, nice songs and I soak in the sounds of a sweet voice I hadn’t heard over forty years. We finished listening to his set and enjoyed a number of introductions and conversations with people in the audience during the break. Before the last set of the night, we packed our things and bid Sarah and Caffe Lena a warm adieu. We were bound for Woodstock where we would lay down our heads at the end of the day’s journey. The rain stopped as we got in the car and turned the ignition to head south.
By noon the next day, we were due at the Strawberry Festival by the train station in Beacon, New York to play a set and see Pete Seeger. These little festivals on the Hudson raise money to maintain the fleet of river sloops that go up and down the Hudson teaching river ecology, grandfathered by the Sloop Clearwater, the first. Free rides all day on the Sloop Woody Guthrie, maybe we’d get to go on it this time. The weather was overcast and holding.
We were meeting our friends, Tara and Diane from Bellingham’s Cabin Fever NW, who were also on the docket to play. The festival was free to the public and bigger than the Corn or Pumpkin Festival. A good feeling was in the air.
Before long, word that “Pete’s here” began to float. We catch sight of him unbuckling his banjo from its case at the bottom of the hill that served as stage. He unfolds to full height with his “anti-terrorism” banjo head tucked under his arm. His face is as pink as his eyes are blue. His face looks up with focus as he begins to sing. It’s always worth crossing the country just to hear and sing with Pete Seeger this close up. A smile starts spreading across the crowd and every voices lift and rise to harmonize with his at every “Turn, Turn, Turn.” This is the bliss moment. Pete Seeger is alive and well, singing his songs with the same strong heart rich with humanity he has pumped through them for more than sixty years. He is the grandfather of the music we sing and write along the same vein. “Though it’s darkest before the dawn” leaves a string of hope tying between all us strangers and friends there that day. We are grateful to hear his song. My friend Nancy, who booked us to play the last set of the day, weaves me through the crowd to wait at the bottom of the hill with my banjo. I want to ask Pete to sign my banjo head. I feel about twelve years old and grin as I wait. Pete and I have the same conversation every time. I introduce myself and he sort of knows who I am. “Travis John” is the common denominator between us. We have a good long look eye-to-eye that covers miles of uncharted territory and then I ask him if he’d sign my banjo. He takes my sharpie and applies his moniker to a cozy spot near the rim below the back of the bridge. I take it back, receiving the blessing that comes his signature with pride and joy.
The Cabin Fever girls step to the top of the hill to roll out their songs like seasoned bakers rolling out pie dough just waiting to be filled with the ingredients for harmony. How could we help but sing? We joke with them later that now they can say that Pete Seeger opened for them and we all have a good laugh. They have just released their latest recording and an entourage of family and friends joined them for the day. They sound warm and the crowd loves them as much as we do. They leave the hill happy and full.
Darkening cloud cover grows ominous as the next band takes the hilltop. The music is good but the weather is up. We check in with Nancy at the sound booth. She jokes that we brought the rain. In fact, it has rained every time we’ve played for her. We were optimistic this time but for naught. We’re up to play next but her eyebrows scurry between yes and no as clouds try to hold back the drops of rain that begin to sputter from overhead. By the time the band is packing it in, cold wet rain sweeps the crowd up from the grass heading for cover and their cars. Our set, the last of the day, is canceled on the spot. Vendors gather their wares and everything wired is unplugged and rolled up. We pick up our instrument cases by their handles and straps and chalk it up to fate. We didn’t get to play but we enjoyed our moments with Pete and our friends. I was silently happy that no one I knew had driven a long distance to hear us that day but one – and she lived in Brooklyn and would come out to hear us there at Roots.
We broke out our instruments and sang a few songs with our friends in the bar of the restaurant we settled in to for dinner. After cheery farewells, we headed back to Woodstock to sleep and prepare.
In a couple of days, we would be working with Happy Traum to create a couple of instructional Ukalaliens DVDs for Homespun in Woodstock. Though we had taught hundreds of people our method live, performing the Ukalaliens Workshop on camera was a new experience for us. We met Happy and Jane for dinner to talk about details for the following day. Next morning, we arrived at the studio and after introductions got to work. It was a three-camera shoot. The one in the middle was “our student” – the one we would have eye contact with. The other two cameras had angles on Steve and me, our hands when we played and our faces when we spoke.
We would try to duplicate our Ukalaliens Workshop and what we do live on camera. Homespun videos are not scripted so the teaching is as close to a live experience as it gets. Since there are two of us, Steve and I have a few years of practice trying not to interrupt each other or cross talk when teaching. We have a simultaneous pace of speaking and listening, adding to thoughts and demonstrating each point. In live Ukalaliens Workshops, we try to maintain a linear track for the new student to follow that will be helpful and not confusing. This is a challenge for a single teacher with a single student. Two teachers teaching in tandem with multiple beginning students have the potential to wreak havoc but we try hard to keep the information flow steady and digestible.
One of the main things we try to do is to give the student a sense of accomplishment by teaching them their first few chords and showing them how that turns into songs they already know. Before long, they are singing and playing on “You Are My Sunshine”, “Home on the Range”. By the time we get to “Crawdad Hole” and “Shady Grove”, they start getting the hang of it and can use what we show them to figure out other songs they like, using the Number System and chord groups in the Ukalaliens Songbook.
All of this sounds easy, right? Guess again. Teaching live is easier. I’ve always been camera shy to begin with. Steve was natural. I tried to follow his lead. Jesse, the labrador at the camera woman’s feet, decided he liked me and every once in a while he would uncurl, get up and come over to where I sat for a pat on the head. Jesse, a very sweet dog, was the kind you would want if you were going to have a dog. “Stop camera” quietly followed Jesse’s wagging tail as Cambiz and Liz turned their camera’s off to get the dog back to his comfort spot after our brief encounters. The interruption helped humanize the studio feel of what we were doing and started to help me relax into the role.
Eight hours later, we wrapped. There was enough material for the method DVD and another one for repertoire and technique. By the time we were done, we were warmed up and ready to roll. Isn’t that the way? Whatever they edit it down to, Ukalaliens I & II on Homespun will have some of the flavor of doing this for the first time. For all those brand new players we’re teaching out there, hopefully, this will prove to be a good thing. Kudos to Happy, Jane, Cambiz and Liz for handling us like pros. Homespun was a great experience.
We celebrated by going to Lucky Chocolates in Saugerties the next day. Rae Steng, the owner, is one of the finest of chocolatiers in the world. To taste a Lucky Chocolate is to have the edge of heaven melt on your lips. Her imagination runs so far beyond borders of convention that diving into her sample tray on the counter is reminiscent of a trip to Ripley’s Believe It or Not without the scary side. Scintillating yes, the air thickens with intrique as we examine the chocolate glitterati fetching our taste buds from afar. “Hmm, this looks nice.” Only to discover that bacon actually IS sumptuous with chocolate. So are potato chips. Is there anything that wouldn’t taste good with this chocolate? I doubt it.
We spend the next couple of days in Woodstock. The house on loan to us belongs to Steve’s sister. It’s a great old place next to a barn off the main road. Michael Lang planned Woodstock in this house. There are two Adirondack chairs perched at the rim of the woods overlooking the creek. Trees and green meadows create a pastoral view of the golf course across the creek, interrupted only occasionally by a random golfer or deer. At night the fireflies blip on and off like wraiths in the know. We miss lightning bugs in the west. They appear more magical with every visit. The air is warm and muggy. Mosquitoes and poison ivy compete for skin. I’m scratching to keep my spot in the chair because at this moment there is no where else I would rather be than here. Steve and I smile at each other and feel the love, luck and toil that has brought us to this place in time.
Perspective rides piggyback on the second hand moving clockwise across the face of Life, shifting by degree with each second. I was fifteen when I first started coming to Woodstock. I’m almost sixty now.
A couple of days later, we got to sing on sacred ground. For those of you acquainted with Steve’s “Old Barbershop” song that details some of the aspects of his life at age 12 in 1962, you’ll appreciate the background of our next gig.
Steve went to Camp High Valley in Clinton Corners, New York, for a couple of summers in his adolescence. At age eleven and twelve, Steve learned how to play his first chords to folk songs on a guitar, how to swing on a rope in the barn, how to skinny-dip in a refreshing pond at night and swim to the raft in the middle, try his first kiss on a girl (just practicing) and he caught enough bass to feed the whole camp by summer’s end. Camp High Valley was Steve’s initiation into manhood and the world outside of family. Camp High Valley was the setting for his first true adventure in country life. I have heard innumerable tales about those days in the life of this young camper and they were always delivered with special tones of respect with the fondest of memories for its founders, Olga & Julian Smythe. Steve and I even went to the camp a few years ago and visited Olga, then at the wizened age of 91, who walked over to leave the last two peaches from the old peach tree on our car hood as Steve brought me down memory lane by the pond and in the barn and around the grounds. The two hard pits from those juicy ripe peaches are still tucked in with our things and may well find themselves dug into new ground soon to see if life stills spurs from inside. But that’s getting ahead of the story…
A few months ago, Steve casually googled Olga Smythe to see if she was still on the planet or if he could find a reference to her. The listing that came up was an essay by her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Cunningham, who had married Olga’s son, Douglas. A younger Douglas was there at camp when Steve was there. Steve wrote an email to Elizabeth to introduce himself and gave her a little background on his High Valley days and inquired about Olga. Elizabeth wrote back a friendly email and brought him up to date on High Valley and Olga’s health and her current transition from independent living to an assisted living in nearby Rosendale. Excitedly, Steve showed me the email and something registered when I read the signature at the bottom. “Is this the author, Elizabeth Cunningham?” Not knowing the answer, Steve prompted me to ask so I wrote her a quick note.
I had remembered seeing the book “The Passion of Mary Magdalen” in an airport bookstore a few years ago. The painting used for the cover was beautiful (Mary Magdalen in a Grotto by Jules Joseph LeFevre c. 1876 – oil on canvas). The book was perched at a forty-five degree angle facing Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code” and the reviewer’s quote under her historic fiction made reference to the saucy, sexy and controversial take on the New Testament through the eyes of this Celtic-born Mary Magdalen. Naturally, I was intrigued. Ever since that first encounter in the window, I intended to buy and read this tale by Elizabeth Cunningham. Life being what it was, I never got around to it. Now, here she was. Her prompt reply said yes. She was the author and book I recognized was the second, the middle of three books in The Maeve Chronicles.
Now we both had something to be excited about. I wrote her back, a longer note this time. I’d been working on a book for the past six years, a shared project and was in search for an editor. Though the ingredients were different, fiction vs. memoir, we shared some theme and I was eager to learn more about her. I began searching for her books in stores while we were out on the road and found a fresh copy of “The Passion of Mary Magdalen” in a little bookstore in eastern Oregon last summer. I carried it home and it sat waiting until we got home just before Christmas.
By this time, we had tenants living in the main house and had moved into the small basement apartment. There was a great deal of work ahead of us. We had decided to sell our house and home of sixteen years. It was time to walk the talk and take our downsizing to the next level. It was Christmas but this time our living space was small and awkward and there was not much room for entertainment. Our kids, all grown now between 21 to 38 years old, had their own itineraries and were in their respective homes hosting holidays of their own. The flu took me out of commission from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. It was on Christmas Eve that I opened the book and began to read the story that Elizabeth Cunningham had written.
Within minutes I was hooked. “This is a REAL story!” I remember saying to myself. She had me in the nooks and crannies of history, mythology and theology with one of the most entertaining story lines I had read in years. I became so engrossed in the tale, I wrote her a quick email to thank her for my Christmas story – for that, indeed, is what it was. It was a gift. I savored the new light on the old parables, characters and events of the life born and celebrated, even as I sneezed and sipped tea in my bed thousands of years later pondering the same set of tales. Even though I started with the middle book, my imagination reveled in its saucy clutches until the very end. I forced myself to slow down near the end so I could stay in the story as long as possible. Sighing a deep sigh of satisfaction when I closed the book, I piped, “THAT was a good story!” Now I’m on to the first book and have the third to finish the epic tale. It’s delicious, fun, thoughtful, intelligent, modern and ancient. The best of all worlds for a mighty read. Elizabeth Cunningham is no slouch.
Inevitably, Elizabeth and I became pen pals of the modern sort. I got on her news list, she hopped on mine. When it was clear we would be coming back to New York this summer, she invited us to High Valley to share a hike and a meal. When she learned we were looking for a host for a concert that evening and she responded with “Why don’t you do it here?” and that’s just what we did.
The day we met Elizabeth and Douglas at High Valley Center (as it’s now called), was a hot summer afternoon. Within minutes of approaching the pond, we peeled our clothes and dove in. We swam in mythic waters of the legendary lake from Steve’s past, spring-fed and brimming with fish, shy snapping turtles who rested on the soft bottom as dragonflies buzzed the surface from the verdant air above. The ever present raft was anchored where it always was. The ladder on its side had lost wood like missing teeth to age. Elizabeth swam the perimeter of the lake with strokes like clockwork as Steve’s chased his memories across the length back and forth. I swam short of halfway and climbed up onto the raft, sat in the sun and then jumped back into the water’s irresistible embrace. The temperature was marvelously warm, uncommon to us northwesterners. Beautiful!
One story after another followed around the circle. We were joined by another resident, Debbie Stone, who had been a counselor when Steve was there and taught with Olga all those years. As if by magic, a gorgeous grilled salmon, salad and wine appeared and we filled up on food, stories and good cheer out amongst the trees and friends. It was good to be alive in that moment with these people. We feel a part of an ever expanding community that includes people and places from our past growing into the center of our life in the present and revitalizing their place in our future together. We truly are part of an amazing tribe in our generation. We are grateful.
With bellies, minds and hearts satisfied, we went back to the barn with our instruments to play for any and all comers. The barn was one of the places Steve would recall most often. His voice always took on a special tone when he spoke of it. Now we were going to make music in it. People arrived and took their places ready for songs and stories. It was a beautiful night to sing in the barn. The setting was far too intimate to stand so we sat with our instruments as we would in our home to sing as we would sing to family and our neighbors. It was a night of filial friendship in music.
We headed to Manhattan for the next few days. We would spend time with Steve’s parents, Anne and Marvin. They were recently awarded recognition for their lifetime achievement in the theatre and dramatic arts in New York City by having a school named after them. The Marvin & Anne Einhorn School of Performing Arts (ESPA) was established by Primary Stages in honor of their personal contribution of talent, work and effort on behalf of Primary Stages and the theatre-at-large. The school hosts a full roster of teachers, classes and workshops for devotees of the acting trade. Anne and Marvin (87 and nearly 90 years old) go to work at Primary Stages five days out of seven. It’s Anne’s voice you hear first when you dial the number, “Primary Stages.” Her voice contains every aspect great actresses strive for: color, flavor and depth, sounding both interesting and interested, intriguing the listener to reveal itself. She could be hired by kings to answer the phone just because she sounds so amazing. That’s just the beginning. Writing about Anne and Marvin is a fat juicy book, not one short paragraph, but suffice it to say that our time in their company is in a category all its own and is never enough. We four enjoy each other with no shortage of things to say, muse about, or play off each other. Marvin has played the fiddle since before his cowboy band days in the 30’s. When he takes out his fiddle and he and Steve begin to play, it’s such a sweet sound that it’s not long before the banjo finds its way out in my hands and we’re playing everything we can think just for the pure joy of playing together. This is among of short list of favorite things to do and continues to ring for weeks ever after in the happy resting places inside of each of us made especially for memories like these.
We arrived at Anne and Marv’s apartment on West 79th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam just around the corner from where Anne was born. Anne & Marv know the neighborhood inside and out and walk, bus or subway everywhere they need to go. They booked a reservation at an italian restaurant a block away where we would meet their friends, Biff and Lisette, for dinner.
Biff Liff and his wife Lisette, are an elegant and earthy pair, intelligent and fun. Biff, whom his wife calls Samuel, is Marvin’s oldest friend. The expression of love between the two men is palpable as they greet one another with tender hugs and sit down to the table. Annie is a young girl when they are all together. Biff’s face is like the head of a golden eagle, craggy with age that still cannot hide the handsome warrior behind the lines. His life’s work with the William Morris Agency has brought many stars to the footlights. In 1962, Biff was the Production Stage Manager for My Fair Lady on Broadway. He recalled bringing a young Steve to watch the play from the top step of a prop backstage that he would abdicate on cue to be rolled onstage for the second act. Biff’s deep, rich voice would make a good “God” in Cecil B. DeMills’ “Ten Comandments.” His laughter echoes, a depthfinder sounding immense enjoyment for life and fills the room. Lizette, playwright and voice actress, looks over at him and pats his broad hand gently. The soft way she calls him Samuel has the ring of a favorite secret. We all know him as the Biff we roar with, laughing over stories that turn up the twinkle in Marvin’s eyes to high as details pour out across the table, a cornucopia of memories. Lizette’s porcelain cheeks stage the loveliest of brown eyes. We lean close in to listen to her soft melodious South African voice describe the trip they are planning to take on a barge down the canals of France. Nimble and astute, the breadth of conversation expands from the past to the future and we sit in the middle, taking each other in like exotic spices over a sumptuous meal.
Biff hears a musical in the songs we write. He planted the idea when we sang for him last Fall. Our old friend and improv director, Scott Kelman, saw a play in our music when he was alive and at his urging, we met with him several times a few years ago to throw ideas around and tease the storyline waiting there into action. Scott died as we wintered through a writer’s residency in Wallowa County in eastern Oregon. We carry the ideas we had and hope someday to manifest a piece in tribute to our friendship and an adventure we have yet to explore. Now Biff reminds Steve that we need to write the musical and the idea is back on the table. In our minds, we want Biff to mentor us off the training wheels and wonder if we, a couple of folksinging songwriters can do what he suggests. What is folk music, after all, but slices of life in words and music? Biff inspires us once again to try something bigger based on what we know so well. This is how we grow, learn from the elders we love as they lead with our hearts.
Mid-week we headed for Brooklyn to play a songwriter round at Roots Cafe. One of the owners, Ryan Lamm, has an amazing weekly night for songwriters to share their songs. Ryan’s father bought him his first guitar from Steve at Artichoke Music in Portland, Oregon when Ryan was younger and a lot shorter than he is now. His father,Greg, is a pastor at George Fox University and would come into the store bearing news of family, friends, and sometimes raunchy jokes. When Ryan learned we were coming to Brooklyn, he invited us to come play the songwriter’s night at Roots. What a great evening it turned out to be! The five other songwriters were incredible, interesting and very good at their craft. We were the “ould ones” in this setting and it was an honor to be given a place at the table. Ryan had us open and close the night with a set. When the last songwriter (Jimmy Stewart from the band Clinkerfield in Australia) wrapped up his set with “and now we’d like to hear more from Ma & Pa” we grinned and took it as a compliment. The caliber of talent on the street today is higher than it’s ever been and we relish having a place to share our songs and to listen and witness the songs of others. It is a way to share life as we know it, a gift we can participate in and deliver. Family members and friends came to hear the songs in Brooklyn that night, including my brother Mike who gave us a ride back to Manhattan afterward and a chance to philosophize over the music and life as we always did in the past.
By the time we said goodbye to the northeast to return to the northwest, our appetites were filled and we were ready for the next step. We would get on a plane in Newark, New Jersey at six in the morning and arrive non-stop in Portland by ten AM. From gathering our instruments and luggage, we would go to northeast Portland, pick up our RV, bring it to the U-Haul, install a hitch and pick up a trailer and go pack up most of the rest of our belongings from the Mason Street house. We had lived well in Portland for over thirty years. The business of Quality Folk would remain in Portland as we moved our residence to a smaller community. The next morning we had a three car, two trailer caravan to Olympia, Washington, one hundred miles north of Portland.
We were moving home.