Michael Hann at The Guardian recently wrote about what he has learned after 16 years as The Guardian’s music editor.
Of course, there are spivs and money grubbers, as there are in any industry that has historically promised large and fast returns. But pretty much everyone I’ve met who works in music does so because they love it, and they don’t make fortunes from it. Music is a remarkably uncorrupt world: there’s an awful lot of trust and good faith involved. And it ignites the passions, still. The surest way to get an interview with one of the old lags of rock off to a good start is to ask them about the music they loved when they were 17. You can see their eyes light up as they recall how they fell in love with music.
His point that music still ignites the passions started me thinking about what I loved when I was 17, and 27, and 37, and, God forbid, 67. I remembered many highlights. Here are some in a tediously long list.
Church music, always, from my earliest memories onward. Listening to my Dad in the Senior Choir at church.
Going with Mom to hear the Minnesota Symphony at the junior high school in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Early 1960s.
A band from the Twin Cities playing at the Telemark Ski Resort near Hayward, Wisconsin, circa 1965. The band featured an organ – definitely cool. Great music mixed with skiing and my fellow teenage skiing buddies.
Rural beer bars in north-west Wisconsin, 1960s. In those days, there were rural areas where those under 21 years of age could drink in taverns that served only beer. Some of them had live music. We had some fine times at the beer bars (they always had dirt parking lots) and are lucky we never crashed our cars on the country roads after a night out.
The Beatles, Bloomington, Minnesota, August 21, 1965, at Met Stadium, the old ballpark where the Minnesota Twins played in the 60s and 70s. The stage was set up on second base. I don’t remember much about the concert except that we almost left the tickets at home. I, my girlfriend, and two other couples.
A country tavern on Long Lake in Chippewa County, Wisconsin owned by an old German with a heavy accent. I think his name was Maxie and the tavern was Maxie’s; I don’t remember. On request, he would get out his accordion (or was it a violin) and play for us. Late 1960s.
Delta Tau Delta Fraternity, late 1960s, Madison, Wisconsin. This was straight out of the movie Animal House although we didn’t realise it at the time. We just thought we were cool. On two or three Saturdays a month we would have beer parties with bands from Milwaukee or Chicago – black soul bands; the frat was all white. We drank and danced up a storm; my frat brothers and my girlfriend.
Music festivals in the Woodstock era. I went with a girlfriend to Sound Storm, Wisconsin’s first outdoor rock festival in 1970 outside Poynette in Columbia County a bit north of Madison. Here’s what a Wisconsin Historical Society essay says about Sound Storm:
About 30,000 people attended Sound Storm, the majority sneaking in through the woods without paying. [I think we paid, but I remember climbing over a barbed-wired fence. Perhaps my memory is shaky.] The Columbia County sheriff, seeing his officers exponentially outnumbered by hippies and bikers, wisely decided to ignore misdemeanors such as nudity and drug use. LSD and other psychedelic drugs were everywhere, along with marijuana and cheap, screw-top wine. Medical students staffed first aid and “bad trips” tents [that I had to visit after ripping my thigh open on the barbed-wire fence], volunteers from the Hog Farm commune in New Mexico helped as stage announcers, and Madison’s Mifflin Street Co-op provided free food. Throughout the weekend, ecstatic dancers whirled before the stage. When undercover officers infiltrated the crowd, Pete [the event organizer] dropped 10,000 fliers from a helicopter urging the audience not to harm them. Fans frolicked in nearby Rowan Creek, even crowning their own “Mud King.” Two members of the band Northern Comfort got married on stage. At night, the York farm sparkled with hundreds of campfires. Only a handful of injuries or arrests were reported.
A block party in Madison, WI, early 1970s. A band called Virginia Rose (or was that the name of the female lead singer?). This was when I was discovering country music under the influence of early country-rock bands like Poco. Virginia Rose was great.
Johnny Cash, Champagne -Urbana, IL, early 70s. I and my girlfriend drove down from Madison to visit friends from high school and see the man in black. Johnny only got better and better in the succeeding years.
Nights at the Birchmere in a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, DC. , mid-to-late 1970s, The Red Clay Ramblers, great stage show; the original Seldom Scene with Ben Eldridge, John Starling, Mike Auldridge, Tom Gray, and John Duffey. More beer drinking with my latest girlfriend, my best buddy Bruce, and a few other cronies from work. The best bluegrass ever!
The Annual Indiana Fiddlers’ Gathering in Battle Ground just outside of Lafayette, IN, summer of ’79. At the time, a small bluegrass festival, today in its 45th year. The first time I saw people bring pieces of flat, thin, smooth wood to a festival that they would put on the ground as a surface for flat dancing or clog dancing (not sure what is the correct name for this style of dancing.)
Stumbled on a free, outdoor show by The Whites (Buck and daughters Sharon and Cheryl) in Georgetown, Washington, DC. I think they were then called Buck White and the Downhome Folks. Sharon later married Ricky Skaggs. They are now in the country hall of fame.
A Holiday Inn in Lafayette, Indiana, 1978. A bluegrass band. I’ve tried to find the name of the band only to come up with a number of possibilities. I think the band included Rickie Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and J.D. Crowe, but would such hotshots of bluegrass and country be playing in a Holiday Inn in Indiana? Can I trust my memory? They were wonderful musicians and well-known in bluegrass. Keith would die too soon. Rickie would be swamped in the Nashville scene but later escaped to return to something closer to his roots.
National Folk Festival, at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, an outdoor music venue near Washington, DC. Many stages set up throughout the rolling countryside of is Vienna, Virginia. Great music, non-commercial music.
Springfield, IL, 1998, driving home from Atlanta, my wife and I stumbled on an old, brick, two-story Italian restaurant in the university neighbourhood. We ate upstairs where there was a wandering fiddler. We listened for a long time and, because we were almost the only ones there, we had the fiddler to ourselves for a long time. He played everything we requested. A similar experience with my wife at the Gasthaus Bavarian Hunter (circa 2000) in Stillwater, Minnesota where we were entertained by the house accordionist.
Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis, MN: late 80’s, early to mid 90’s. It’s still there and going strong, but I, unfortunately, haven’t been back in too long a time:
- A group of Hawaiian slack-key guitarists and singers. They didn’t know quite what to make of the winter.
- Robin and Linda Williamson, tremendous in person.
- Pat Donohue, the long-time Prairie Home Companion’s guitarist
- John Hammond, blues man
I shouldn’t have started this list. I now realise how little live music I’ve heard in the last two decades. I have partially made up for this by spending lots of time and money on building a home library of music. It’s now all digital, but in the past, for financial reasons, I’ve sold a large collection of LPs and two large collections of CDs. How I wish I still had them, some of which were a bit obscure and might be hard to find these days. For example, in the late 70’s in a record store in Georgetown, Washington, DC, I bought an LP – a very fine LP – by Country Ham, a group I had never heard of when I bought the record. I can find no records on iTunes by a band called Country Ham.
A German beer and dance hall in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC with my Czechoslovak girlfriend Vera, 1978. My first experience waltzing.
Connecticut Ave, NW in Washington, DC, near the zoo in what was then a block or two of small retail, bars, and restaurants, circa 1976 – 77. I think one of the first metro stations was built in this block
- Donovan’s. One night a week a band called Sheepshead Bay played. I sat at the bar (once again drinking beer) thoroughly enjoying their mix of folk and political and cultural satire (Reston Isn’t Resting Anymore).
- Right across the street, Ireland’s Four Provinces where I first tasted the pleasures of Harp Lager and listened to the best Irish music I’ve ever heard.
- Also across the street was the movie theater where I saw the very first Star Wars in 1977.
Madrid 1973 in a tapas bar. I and an acquaintance I met on the overnight train from Paris. A three or four man combo strolls in off the street and blow our socks off with Spanish songs.
Mykonos, Greece, 1973: listening to Greek music and watching the locals do their Greek circle dances. Seemingly impromptu, but probably staged for the tourists, maybe a bit of both.
Blues Saloon in Frog Town in St. Paul. The stage was on the second floor of an old, wood frame building. One got upstairs using a seedy-looking staircase. No frills in the concert room. Just loud, raucous blues. It reminded me of the movie Devil In a Blue Dress based on the first of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books. The movie was my introduction to West Coast Blues, Jump Jazz, and other music of the black neighbourhoods in southern California in the years after World War II. The movie didn’t get much attention and still doesn’t but is one of my favorites in part because of the music and a good performance by Denzel Washington.
Small Italian Restaurant on the far outskirts of N. VA suburbs of DC. Bluegrass on weekends. An old time, family group, I think a wife and husband singing. As usual, I am at the bar drinking beer, eating pasta, and soaking in the music and vibes. On the rural fringe of the urban area. An out of the way spot that I stumbled on by accident.
And still, above all, listening to music, dancing to music, working out to music, being brought to tears by music, fighting the blues (bad, bad blues) with music, smiling with music.
Let’s play on!