Dear Switchback Friends,
Fall has arrived. Technically, it still won’t be here until September 22. And the weeks have been hot here in the Midwest. I know firsthand from driving the Golden Eagle, the Switchback minivan that has lost its air conditioning. The van still chugs along and over Labor Day, I drove it across spectacular Iowa countryside, heading south to our concert in Keokuk.
The GPS had us whipsawing across one and two lane roads. We had just passed through a small town, when I saw one.
It was making an almost suicidal march across the asphalt roads heading from one side to the other for no reason whatsoever. I sighed, looked across the fields on the 90 degree day and sadly recognized that it was now Fall.
I am talking about the Woolly Bear Caterpillar. And when it arrives on the scene, for me personally, it is the one single harbinger of Autumn. In Chicago, they are not around, and it has always been rambling across the backcountry roads when the Woolly Bears make their appearance.
I never knew what they would turn into. I mean obviously they become some sort of butterfly or moth, but all these years of seeing them, I just didn’t know. And so, this time, driving along Highway 218, erratically dodging the little beasts, I thought I should look up what it is I am trying to not run over.
For those who have not been graced by the presence of the Woolly Bear, they are, well, sort of cute. About an inch and a half long, they possess fine long hairs, with a band of burnt ochre brown in the middle, and two black bands making the front and rear. They look like a pipe-cleaner gone wild. And the speed that they progress at across the road is somewhat impressive for something so small.
So, exploring on Wikipedia, I was surprised to see its scientific name is Pyrrharctia isabella, and it becomes the Isabella Tiger Moth. Now, I don’t know if I have seen an Isabella Tiger Moth and so this was another revelation. But I have seen the tan, velvet pouches from which they have emerged. I just hadn’t known that it belonged to the Woolly Caterpillar.
As a kid, we would pick them up alongside the road. They felt soft and immediately they would roll up into a ball in an effort to protect themselves. (Only now, years later do I read that their fine hairs can actually cause dermatitis. Ignorance is bliss.) I would make sure they got into the field and they would unravel and head off on their business.
But what is their business? I never really understood. According to Wikipedia, they like to eat herbs and leaves, especially alkaloid bearing leaves. A poppy plant, or such will be eaten and scientists have determined that they do this to get rid of internal fly parasites.
Now, that’s depressing that even a tiny woolly bear caterpillar has to deal with the parasites, let alone one with such a disgusting name. But scientists are pretty hyped up about this as they believe this is one instance in which an insect is actually medicating itself against an insect. So, that is a pretty amazing fact.
Perhaps they are running across the road, because they are high and trying to eradicate a parasite. I guess I would probably cross a hot early fall road a bit out of it if I knew I had an internal fly parasite too.
The Woolly Bear was described by Sir James Edward Smith in 1797. He was the first European to describe them. This was of interest to me and delving into the life of Sir James Edward Smith, I found out that he was the publisher, of the Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia. Which must have been a bestseller. Did Sir James ever see a Woolly Bear? Nope, he was just describing what John Abbot saw and describing whatever Abbott looked and drew.
Wait a second, I can hear you asking, who is John Abbot? Glad you asked, for he was the guy who, was supposed to be a lawyer, but devoted his life to studying insects instead. He was a skilled engraver and his illustrations apparently became the foundation of a lot of studies on North American insects.
Now, before you write him off as some eighteenth century slacker, I’ll have you know that Abbot served in the Revolutionary War in the Third Georgia Continental Battalion. No doubt, marching down the lanes to meet the British, Abbot saw these crazed, stoned caterpillars crossing the road. Apparently, Abbot felt that Sir James needed to let the world know about the Woolly Bear Caterpillar. One cannot keep such revelations to oneself.
If that wasn’t fascinating enough, folklore has it that the larger the band on the Woolly Caterpillar can indicate the severity of the winter. If the Woolly Bear has a wide band in the middle, it means that we will have mild winter. And the opposite means a severe one. Which really gets me as I always thought it was the other way around. So for nearly half a century, I have been predicting the weather wrong.
At this point, you are probably asking me, what is the point?
And the point is this. It is so easy to dismiss life. Dismiss the little things that dangle and dance their way in front of us. Brush through the spider web, half listen to the bird song or the cricket chirp. It is way easier to keep the phone open, download an app, and tune out of this amazing life.
Yes, this little critter I have been dismissing and driving around for years, but I didn’t really know what it was. And probably still wouldn’t have, except I asked Brian “did you see the caterpillars crossing the road?”
“What caterpillars?” said Brian. And I had to describe the Woolly Bear caterpillar to him.
And what this means for me, is that I need to stop at times, listen, absorb and acknowledge the moment. Marvel and appreciate the fact that others have witnessed, scrutinized, and categorized good old Pyrrharctia Isabella. And yes, it does mean that Autumn is here.
Before you think that I am the only one smitten by the crazed, high, parasite eradicating, weather predicting Woolly Bear, consider the fact that places like Vermillion, Ohio and Banner, Kentucky have Woolly Bear festivals. They are complete with costumes, races, and odes to the little critter. The winner of the race is the one to predict the winter.
I can only guess that John Abbot would be proud.
Dear Switchback Friends,
Brian and I log over 35,000 miles a year driving. Probably more, but like our shows, we never like to count too closely as that means greater accountability to our wives. And so we guesstimate to a degree.
While we are driving, we tend to listen to AM Radio. There has always been something wonderful about that particular medium. Especially in the early days before cell phones, the AM dial still was Lord of the Darkness. We could easily dial up a million stations from across North America while driving from Denver to Chicago. The French-Canadian stations, the Mexican stations and all the other stations stretching from New York to as far as Houston. These distant stations, with their familiar ads for things you’d have in your neighborhood, except it wasn’t your neighborhood, but a neighborhood some 1400 miles away. And then, there was the late night talk. Good late night talk. Non-political, but mind challenging, sometimes spooky, designed to keep you awake late night talk. That was the talk of Art Bell on Coast to Coast.
Art died a couple months back, but he had been off the airwaves for a while. He had a voice that would keep two musicians awake after a long night playing gigs. It was alert, warm, funny, and always bringing up topics that would have you reflexively reaching to turn up the volume.
I think I can vouch that I won my wife Annie’s heart by Art. After a late night show, I was driving Annie home when I turned on Art Bell. You couldn’t get him in Chicago; you had to dial WTAM over in Cleveland and hold your arm out the window to help the antennae get the right reception. Here was this guy talking about aliens, interviewing some “expert” in the field and though his skepticism was just below the surface, the plausibility of things was enough to keep one awake without any stimulants. People would call in from across North America.
“West of the Rockies,” Art would say and “click” - there would be someone with some story about how they were driving down a lonely road and all of a sudden….you can imagine the rest. “East of the Rockies,” would boom out Art and then another caller would come on with some cockamamie story that Art would immediately quash. Art was no dramatic pushover. Art wanted truth, even if it came from the most improbable sources and mythic legends out there. Loch Ness. Bigfoot. Aliens. Ghosts. Chaupacabra. Annie was hooked and became a bigger Coast to Coast listener than me. To this day she listens to old broadcasts on the computer, especially the interviews with Malachy Martin, the priest who was a demon hunter. Scary stuff. Enough to keep one awake and alert and make the miles go by.
One night, Brian and I heard Art Bell interview Eric Burden, the lead singer of the 60’s group The Animals. It was just great radio, with lots of insight into the music business and the struggle to continue to be relevant. After a day of outreach programs and an evening of playing a noisy, smoky bar, that was manna from heaven for our ears.
Art kept us awake, alive, connected with our fellow human beings. He joined people together from across Canada and the US. It was like belonging to some big club.
One night, we drove from Rochester, Minnesota to Lansing, Iowa. We were heading along the river around 2 a.m., listening to Art. He was interviewing a ghost hunter who had made EVP recordings of spirits in a house. An Electronic Voice Phenomenon recording is done on a handheld device, sort of a memo machine that when played back can have these eerie voices of “spirits” talking. When they answer the questions that are posed to them, it gets your attention. Such was the case and we were just about to hear this disembodied voice say some scary thing when a big barn owl flew right into our windshield. We both yelled at the top of our lungs as we lurched to a stop, calmed only by the voice of Art, asking another question.
Last month, I spun the dial as we drove from Cincinnati to Chicago.
AM radio is now dominated by businesses that prefer to push political screed over the Bermuda Triangle. What they are pushing should be as impossible to believe. Except by the constant anger, they want us to not think about the fantastic, but the fanatic. The tiki-torch lit world of just enough subtle hate. Not that this spewing is a specific party doctrine either. Nope, the Party of the Elephant and the party of the Donkey are just so much red and blue. This is about your neighbor. They want you to be riled up and ultimately to look around with fear in a world of black, white, and red.
Music in my opinion is here to bring us together. And so should be talk radio. These blowhards that represent “Opinion Entertainment” are so shameful that they should, like Alex Jones and his lies, be taken off the airwaves. Our airwaves that belong to “We the People.” The right to free speech is only a right if it is used with the responsibility every right granted demands. These guys are nothing new, just a revamped Father Coughlin.
I miss the fun of AM talk radio.
I miss Art Bell.
Dear Switchback Friends,
July 16 is my birthday. I happen to turn 55. For my birthday, my mother-in-law gave me an Ancestry.com DNA kit and the results came in. I am 53% Irish, Scottish, Welsh, 31% from Great Britain (meaning there may be some English, but again Irish, Scottish, Welsh) and 13% Iberian Peninsula, which takes in France, Spain and Portugal. This is not too surprising as most Irish descend from the Milesians (or the son of Mil) from the Iberian Peninsula. However in there is my French. French-Canadian to be exact. So, it is doubly accurate.
The biggest kick is the “low confidence regions” which are 1% each of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe. My Austrian forebears must be rolling in their collective graves as they have been bred out by the Irish. But that 1% Viking! Low confidence, indeed.
For the most part, I am a Celt. Which is fine by me. My daughter Áine will have so much more fun with her DNA than myself due to her Asian lineage. And according to Ancestry, I am related to my brother Peter, which completely kills the hope that he was an aberration in our family.
So, here I am, 55. And I struggle as I reflect on the successes and the failures that so far have been part of this life. And though I now know with some certainty of what I am made of genetically, I always feel that pang of doubt as to what I am spiritually. I feel sadness as summer hits her height of glory and another year goes by.
However, such struggles lead me back to another July, years ago, when I was working as an usher at the Woodstock Opera House.
Richard Henzel, that great Chicago journeyman actor, was doing a one man show and I watched spellbound as he transformed into Mark Twain.
It was 1981. Henzel took the stage dressed in the iconic white suit and clenching a cigar, his blond hair powdered white and wrinkles drawn in with an eye pencil. Magically, for two hours, Twain was in our presence.
Henzel was a journeyman, like I was to become in my practice of music. And he would hold court over our audience of 150 members.
I now wonder if he ever felt like he, too, was struggling with the idea of whether or not he was doing everything he could do with his career. And if his career was the sum and total of who he was. And, most of all--did it matter? Hal Holbrook was already a cigar-chewing Twain and people flocked to see him. Here was this workingman Twain at this tiny Midwestern opera house on a hot, humid night in July. If he thought any of those thoughts as he assumed his character, I would not have known.
For the final act of the night as Twain, Henzel gave one of his most wonderful speeches. I can still remember the room getting quiet as Twain’s scratchy Missouri voice said:
Many & many a year ago I read an anecdote in Dana's book, "Two Years Before the Mast." A frivolous little self-important captain of a coasting-sloop in the dried-apple and kitchen-furniture trade was always hailing every vessel that came in sight, just to hear himself talk, and air his small grandeurs. One day a majestic Indiaman came plowing by, with course on course of canvas towering into the sky, her decks and yards swarming with sailors; with macaws and monkeys and all manner of strange and romantic creatures populating her rigging; and thereto her freightage of precious spices lading the breeze with gracious and mysterious odors of the Orient. Of course the little-coaster-captain hopped into the shrouds and squeaked a hail: "Ship ahoy! What ship is that, and whence and whither?" In a deep and thunderous bass came the answer back, through a speaking-trumpet: "The Begum of Bengal, 123 days out from Canton—homeward bound! What ship is that?" The little captain's vanity was all crushed out of him, and most humbly he squeaked back: "Only the Mary Ann—14 hours out from Boston, bound for Kittery Point with—with nothing to speak of!"
I remember laughing with the audience, and though I knew what would come next from Twain, as it did with every matinee and evening performance, it always came refreshingly new and beautiful. It was a lesson that I had drilled into my subconscious.
That eloquent word, ‘only’ expresses the deeps of his stricken humbleness. And what is my case? During perhaps one hour in the twenty four-not more than that-I stop and I humbly reflect. Then I am humble, then I am properly meek, and for the little time, I am ‘only the Mary Ann’ -fourteen hours out and cargoed with vegetables and tinware; but all the other twenty three my self satisfaction runs high, and I am that stately Indiaman, ploughing the seas under a cloud of sail and laden with a rich freightage of the kindest words that were ever spoke to a wandering alien, I think, my twenty six crowded and fortunate days multiplied by five; and I am the Begum of Bengal, a hundred and twenty three days out of Canton-homeward bound!
For my career, I have been the Mary Ann, heading to little ports of call around the world, bringing my wares to folks who have been most kind in accepting and, at times, even paying for them. The rusty little minivan instead of a huge tour bus. Schlepping my own equipment and with the eye on the clock, realizing that perhaps I will always be the Mary Ann. It is indeed humbling.
But during those shows, the love I receive and the friendship I have earned has made me feel, like Twain, as the Begum of Bengal. My own freightage carrying the years of stories, joy, laughter, love and support to the point that it overflows the hold, sits on deck and even hangs from the rigging. At those points, singing on stage, I need no other satisfaction, no other reassurance that I am on the right path. At that point of joy I, too, am the Begum of Bengal. Fifty-five years out - homeward bound.
Dear Friends of Switchback,
Someone recently asked me why we are so enamored of Costa Rica for tours. And in talking to that person, I realized that a lot of folks don’t really know much about this country. For Brian and myself, we love Costa Rica for what it is and what it isn’t.
What it offers our fans is the opportunity to travel inexpensively during the height of the cold winter months in North America to a country that is a three hour flight from Fort Meyers or Houston. Compared to traveling to Hawaii, one has more time experiencing the adventure and less time traveling to the adventure. I personally love the fact that Costa Rica is on Central Standard Time. That means no jet-lag. Being on the Pacific Ocean on Chicago time is a pretty nice feeling.
Costa Rica is situated in Central America. The country is a democratic one, with a newly elected president this year. One of its main boasts is that it did away with its army in 1948, being one of the only countries in the world that does not have a military. Instead, it focused on putting that money into education and healthcare for its people. That is a pretty impressive move for any country, let alone a small country in Central America.
Most Americans are confused when it comes to Central and South America. Locating Costa Rica on a map is a problem as a lot of people confuse it with the territory of Puerto Rico. Costa Rica is not an island, but part of the thin strip of land between the continents of North and South America. It is a very stable and beautiful country. The people are helpful and peaceful.
Costa Rica, unlike a lot of its neighbors north and south, is calm. It is mainly focused on tourism, especially eco-tourism, with its beautiful rainforests and beaches. The country itself is in the process of becoming completely independent of fossil fuels. Another great example for our world, in my opinion.
The spine of the Americas, the mountains of the continental divide run right down the middle of the country, giving the highlands a gentle weather that feels like early June for most Midwestern Americans. Last time we were there, our group even had light sweaters when we gathered in the evening to watch a brilliant sunset.
I know that some people are afraid of being in a country where English is not the first language. But like the rest of the world, English is pretty much spoken by everyone in the tourist industry. Our travelers will have no problem here. Because of the push for tourism, most people speak English or know some English. If you know some Spanish, it is great, but not necessary for the places where we stay and visit.
Costa Rica, does have its modern conveniences. Some people think that there are no working toilets, no toilet paper, and poor people begging everywhere. That is not the case. There is a Wal-Mart in San Jose. I don’t think much more needs to be said. Costa Rica is a modern country.
Like Ireland, the people of Costa Rica are genuinely interested in the care of their tourists. “Pura Vida,” or the “pure life,” is their motto and it is reflected in the good food, the unspoiled beaches and breathtaking views of the country. They have made the idea of relaxation into a way of life.
U.S. dollars are accepted in Costa Rica. You won’t get change in U.S. dollars, but at least you can arrive without feeling you need to exchange money. And the dollar goes a long way there. You can shop for some wonderful bargains. The power of the dollar allows us to stay at the finest resorts and hotels. So if you want to stay at places like the Rich and Famous, you can. And we do.
That said, like any place, if you want to find poverty, crime and anything negative, you can find it. You can find that in Ireland if you look around.
We may not like some of their roads (and the country is at odds on improving some roads due to the impact on the ecology of its rainforests), but that is what the bar on the coach is for, to relax and have a great time. And get rid of our North American rush-rush-rush.
As usual, Brian and I create opportunities for our travelers to hear our music. And Costa Rica does not disappoint with beautiful backdrops for our concerts.
We like to keep our Costa Rica tour small. About 20 lucky people will join us as we cruise on the ocean, snorkel, and ride a tram through the forest canopy. On our final day last February, we had manta rays jumping out of the water with the setting sun gleaming through the spray. A beautiful sight in a beautiful, magical place.
We hope that this article will help our friends decide to join us for a tour to our Tropical Ireland, Costa Rica, and help clear any misconceptions about the land and its people as well.
When it is fifteen degrees below back home, it is an almost guilty feeling one can have knowing that your friends are home, shivering and miserable. But a margarita on the beach cures that pretty quickly.
Dear friends of Switchback,
Jet-lagged and grumpy, I received the text message from my best friend Dave Heuvelman. His son Dominic was enrolled in a “fun-run” at school. The school hired a company to help organize the run.
“C’mon, Mack,” Dave said. “John (our other buddy from high school) has pledged, and you are not going to let him outdo you, are you?”
I rolled my eyes. Since the days of Socrates, sitting there with all of his students around him in Greece, there has been the concept of the fundraiser for schools. “If we raise enough drachma, kids, I am going to drink this poison hemlock,” said Socrates. “And we will do it by selling chocolate!”
We’ve come a long way, baby. Now there is a flashy video program and a whole team of professionals that descend upon the school to help create what is called fun-run.com. The idea is simple: put on a healthy run around the school and people can pledge for a child per lap with a total of 35 laps. The company that runs this event is called Boosterthon. It was started by a couple who earnestly pitch the story about how their passion is making a better fundraising experience for schools around the country. That made me think about how the old days were.
Back in the day, which for me was 1969, I had my first chance to go fundraising for Holy Cross School in Deerfield, IL. It was before my family moved to Woodstock and I was in first grade. The fundraiser for the school was brilliantly simple. We sold plastic bags of candy before Halloween. The bags were made with an image of a ghost with a pumpkin head and could double as a puppet once the candy was exhausted. My brothers and I hawked the goods from door to door and learned the valuable lesson of entrepreneurship: rejection from little old ladies.
That lesson was duly embraced by my siblings who all went into secure nine to five jobs later in life. For me, I guess I am still learning.
The second aspect was that about a month later we would be going from door to door, this time dressed up for Halloween. We would get back that candy from the little old ladies we sold to in the first place. It seemed unfair.
When we moved to Woodstock, I thought I had ditched the last of fundraising for the school. But at St. Mary’s School, I came face to face with the Morely Chocolate Company, a company that was founded in Detroit in 1919. The company was known for its “Bumpy Cake,” which is still considered a delicacy in Michigan. But the sinister side of the company was the enslavement of grade schoolers to push the product in the name of fundraising. The company would deliver boxcars filled with boxes of chocolates which were then brought to the school to be sold by us kids. Door to door. To little old ladies. Turtles, mints, peanut butter clusters. A whole arsenal of chocolate at our disposal. The competition was fierce, with the kid who sold the most getting a prize, which was usually a Schwinn 10-speed bike.
It was pretty tough for us McCormack kids, as we were competing against each other selling boxes of chocolates in the chocolate-saturated market that Woodstock quickly became. Because we lived out in the country, we had to be dropped off in town to sell the wares. Once again, the valuable lesson of entrepreneurship was there for the learning: “band together and sell the chocolate so one brother wins the prize, and you can all then share that prize.”
However, my brothers and I never learned that one as our parents had raised us to “be individuals.” And so we flailed about town, lugging our cartons of chocolate and competing against our classmates and each other.
My dad, being a dentist, was never too keen on the whole idea of selling candy. Mom did her best to buy what she could in an attempt to be fair with her sugar-selling brood. And it was far easier to surrender to the chocolate and just eat what we should be selling. For about eight weeks we would feast on various boxes of chocolate that never made it to the neighborhoods of Woodstock.
However, this too eventually lost its luster and we would have to lug back the unsold cartons and hand in whatever money we gleaned. The prize would go to the kid whose parents wrote a check to buy the whole lot of candy he or she was selling. That kid learned a valuable lesson in entrepreneurship: “It is good to have patrons, even better if they are your parents.” The 10-speed Schwinn bicycle would be paraded in front of the rest of us sullen kids, who were coming down from a collective sugar high. Life was unfair.
When I went to high school, it was the World’s Finest Chocolate Company. We would have a big pep rally in the gym with the cheerleaders doing routines out on the floor. The boxes of the World’s Finest Chocolate (which was debatable) were piled up on the floor, a stack for each class.
Our principal Mr. Hartlieb would make an impassioned plea about how important it was for each student to sell, sell, sell and help Marian Central buy sports equipment. And once again, we would lug the bars of candy back to the farm and go about attempting to sell chocolate between chores, homework, and running cross country.
Disheartened by the chocolate-hating little old ladies, we would then despondently eat the bars of chocolate, further sending our family into debt and diabetes. My father would shake his head as he wrote the check to cover the candy we ate. We would then lug back the unsold boxes and be humiliated as the kid with parents who bought the whole shipment would get the Schwinn 10-speed bike.
So when my buddy Dave reached out to me in the attempt to help Dominic achieve his goal of a zillion dollars, I immediately saw turtles. I sent off money to him and warned him that “what goes around comes around.”
And it did, about five days later.
Aine came out of class excitedly wearing a paper crown that was festooned with directions for enrolling in the fun-run. A group of bubbly college-age students wearing blue shirts were busy loading up the van with speakers, banners, and a vast propaganda machine to promote the fun-run. It took me about half an hour to comprehend what was going on at Our Lady of Perpetual Fundraising. It was back again, but this time in 21st century slickness. I sat stunned at my computer as the video with an excited announcer’s voice mentioned how much this helps the school, the children, and the community.
And so here is the link to Aine’s pledge page. And yes, it will please me to no end to have folks pledge and raise money for her school. It is a good school after all, and Aine is soooo excited that this event is about to take place. And yes, I do think Boosterthon is on to something positive here.
I don’t know how many laps she’ll run. Perhaps it is a good thing not to send our children into the community to sell chocolate anymore. Perhaps running around a track levels the playing field and eliminates that spoiled kid who gets the 10 speed bike because his parents bought all the chocolate. Perhaps.
I think I will go eat some chocolate now.
~ Martin McCormack
Dear Switchback friends,
As I write this, the sounds of the Pacific come in through the screen door. Out the other door are the highway sounds, cars going by at 30 miles per hour, heading off to the Polynesian Cultural Center for a luau. By the look of the brochure costs, it is the tourists who are once again to be eaten alive.
The north shore of Oahu is a great place to “hunker down” with my family. We just finished a dinner of pompano fish, freshly caught by a young father and his three sons out by the coral reef. Aine watches “Wally Kazam” on television. As I look at Annie’s laptop monitor, it reads 1:16 a.m. back in Chicago. One more weekend and we will be back in the Midwest, where spring will welcome us with her freezing rain and straining daffodils, yearning to be warm. I shut that thought out of my mind and wonder, “Will that dog be back again?”
When people land in Hawaii, the pilot usually says, “Welcome to Paradise,” and in so many ways, the pilot is right. Even the threat of storms here means that there might be some rain (a Hawaiian Blessing as it is called), followed by a lot of sunshine. The weather is not like the storm forecast in the Midwest that shows an unbroken front that often stretches from Manitoba to Texas, snowing in some places, flooding in others, and generally making half a continent miserable. Here, even miserable is tempered by sunshine. The rain falls warm and forgiving. It is Paradise.
But, every morning outside my lanai, there it was. A deposit made by a local dog, strategically located to ensure that the unsuspecting tourist will step in it. This dog revealed itself on day two of our stay here. It is a big, chunky black Lab. The owners appear to be native Hawaiian and are affable enough as they go chasing down this dog. “Oh, there you are!” the dog’s owner declared, deftly sidestepping the mound of Mahalo it left. The lab wore a thick red collar, at least the first day, when the owners reunited with their dog. Later, it went commando.
“Are you going to say something to them about the dog?” Annie asked me. I was immediately defensive. First of all, the idea of any confrontation over dog poop is something to be avoided when on vacation. I saw the owners bundle the overweight dog into the pickup truck where it waddled to the tailgate and looked at me with its big yellow unblinking eyes.
It was sizing me up and I could tell the dog was laughing. “I’ll be back to alter your Aloha, haole,” was what he was saying to me, as the truck turned and zoomed off at 10 miles per hour, which for Oahu is making a statement.
The dog was gone, but there remained his calling card. Now there are a bunch of staff guys at this rental property. Their neon lime green polyester work shirts attempt to create a jovial vibe as they walk around the property, occasionally with a rake in hand, but most time, it seemed they were just walking around the property.
“Sir,” I said to the guy who slowly walked within striking distance of the Lab-lava, “this black Lab was running around and he deposited this big business outside my lanai.” He rolled his eyes toward heaven and sighed.
“Yeah, we are trying to get that dog. Don’t even mention that dog,” he said as he walked off, pleading to the Hawaiian gods with his hands outspread. The dog doody was still there, a prodigious bit of island in a sea of short green beach grass.
“All right,” I said to my family, “I am going to clean this up.” I found an old dustpan that was used to empty coal ash from the grills and walked over to the pile. Dressed in my swimsuit, with my very pale skin glistening with 500 SPF lotion, I slowly attempted to coax the poodle-strudel onto the coal ash dustpan. I felt like I was on a curling squad.
I pushed against the resisting beach grass and tried not to roll this canine-cannoli across the entire yard. Finally, I had the object of my annoyance in the dustpan and took it to a nearby trash container.
I felt like I did a good deed for everyone there and even rinsed the grass down for good measure.
The next day, after waking up to a glorious Easter sunrise and watching the deep blue rollers crossing the reef at high tide, I sipped my Kona coffee and counted my blessings.
Then the dog came back. Commando.
He ambled to the exact same spot where he done his job the day before and squatted. I ran out onto the lanai. “Bad dog,” I said, “get out of here.” The dog looked at me with his yellow unblinking eyes wearing a blank expression. All my yelling and gesticulating were part of his entertainment as he made another Magnum-oh my.
As I was rounding the gate to shoo him off the property, he was done. He smiled at me, quite happy that he showed me a bit of “hope you are enjoying your holiday” and for good measure squirted around the palm tree where I had planned to hide Easter eggs for Aine.
The Lab ambled onto the beach and walked away as I waved down another guy wearing a neon lime green polyester shirt.
“That black Lab was back,” I said to him as he walked around without any rake. “He did his business back in the same spot.”
The guy looked at me, and perhaps because it was Easter, refrained from saying anything other than, “We know about that dog and are getting it under control.”
“Well, I don’t want my daughter to go running across the lawn and step on some ‘under control’,” I said, trying to be light about it. He looked at me and turned away.
I decided to go to Church and pray about it. The Lord works in mysterious ways, I figured. He might work on this, too?
Back from church, I was surprised to see that no one had moved that Waimea-watchit. It sat, baking in the sun. Barefoot people walked obliviously around it, heading to the beach, sauntering over to the grill and arranging lounge chairs. Any sense of civic duty ebbed with the low tide.
I sighed and thought that at least on this holiest of days, I should humble myself and move the mountain to Mohammed, so to speak.
So I armed myself with the dustpan and once again went canine-curling across the lawn. Everyone ignored me wearing my bright red sand shoes, hunched over, my back showing the areas that I missed with my 500 SPF lotion, my long hair dangling over my face, muttering to myself as I rolled something that was definitely not an Easter egg.
Rinsing down the lawn after another successful attempt, I was happy that at least all the kids looking for Easter eggs would not pick up a dud with me on patrol.
The next day, no sign of the dog, but a sign that the dog was there. I was incredulous.
“This dog has it in for me,” I said to Annie. “Does he have GPS in his lower intestine?”
Sure enough, a guy in a neon lime green shirt with no rake was walking slowly toward the ocean to see if it was still there. It was.
And I said to him, “Sir, this dog just dropped another puppy pile in the exact same spot.” The guy looked at me, noticing that I had failed to completely sunblock my skin and that I had a beet red patch of burn that looked something like the map of Antarctica forming on my stomach. “Okay,” he said, not even looking at the gigantic rover-range that was blocking my view of the ocean.
And seven hours later, I gave up and took the now trusty dustpan and expertly got the Oahu-uh-oh into the trash.
People splashed in the ocean. Retirees with platters of burgers walked over the lawn in bare feet to the grill. A little boy rolled his ball as his mother shed her shoes and padded across the lawn. She gazed open mouthed at the ocean as the kid trotted back and forth over the scene of the crime.
And I wonder, when I leave, what will happen? Will the Lab look around and say, “Well, where did he go?” Will a neon lime green shirt guy finally decide that it isn’t beneath him to scoop up a Honolulu-how-do-you-do?
Or will some other guy, sitting in his swimsuit on this lanai, his pale skin slathered in 500 SPF, look out at Paradise, turn to his wife and say, “WHAT is that dog doing?”
Dear friends of Switchback,
Welcome to the High Holy Season of the Year! No, not Easter, but St. Patrick’s Day Season, which for us began in February and will not end until around April 10th. We are pretty busy at this time of year, celebrating our Irish heritage through music with as many people as we can. And we are pretty far-flung these days too, heading across the Midwest and on to Arizona and ending up playing Kona and Oahu in Hawaii. It could be argued that our season never really ends.
But at this time of year I always go back in my mind to the early days before Switchback, when Brian and I were with the Wailin’ Banshees. This was in B.R.D. time (Before River Dance) when there really was no such thing as the Irish pubs we see in abundance today. Yes, there were Irish pubs in Chicago, but they were pubs that had Irish in them. They had names like The Abbey Pub, Sixpenny Bit, and The Goalpost. And there were Irish cabaret-style places like the Irish Village, which would have dances and bring entertainers over from Ireland. The Irish Heritage Center on the north side of Chicago was still a vacant high school, and Gaelic Park on the south side didn’t have the hall and pub it has today. It was a park for Gaelic football.
In those days during the mid-1980's, you were identified as being either a “greenhorn” which was an Irish-born immigrant or a “narrowback,” an Irish-American. Irish dance and certainly Irish music were still an “ethnic” thing, not the form we see today, embraced, celebrated, and often played and danced by people without any Celtic blood. And that is a good thing, in my opinion.
Still, as a band that was comprised of one greenhorn and three narrowbacks, the Wailin’ Banshees was an unusual group. That we also were four people, two of whom were 40 years our seniors, united in the love of Irish music was also unusual. We made for a fun but slightly dysfunctional Irish band, acting more like a family band than anything else.
Some of the pubs we played were only for greenhorn Irish. And in those days there were pubs that leaned heavily toward the IRA. And I don’t mean places that just sang rebel songs either. As narrowbacks, Brian and I were not always welcomed and always viewed with suspicion. But with Galway-born Bert McMahon along, with his easy demeanor, glint in his eye, and fantastic banjo playing, we were safe. Some pubs and events were more politically oriented. These were places where Irish aldermen held sway, and their lackeys would uphold fealty to the point of obnoxiousness.
I remember Brian and I once played a fundraiser for a northside Alderman. We were hungry and went to where the food was being served. As musicians it was customary to be fed at such events as part of the deal. We got two plates of mostaccioli and chicken (which people don’t realize is really the food served at all Irish weddings and events, not corn beef and cabbage) and were about to sit and eat when a crowd of angry looking men gathered around us.
“You bettah make a donation for the alderman,” growled one. “That food ain’t free.”
“Well, if it isn’t free, I ain’t eating it,” I retorted.
“Oh, you’re going to eat it,” replied one glowering lackey.
So Brian and I, hired to play and already playing at a discount for that alderman, literally ate with a circle of people standing over our table. In came our fiddler Mary McDonagh who was known and respected by many in the Irish community, greenhorn and narrowback alike. She snarled at the pack surrounding her boys and they skulked off. But we got a lesson in Irish politics that day: always bring the alderman with you.
When Jayne Byrne ran for re-election as the first (and to date only) female Mayor of Chicago, our band was hired to supply the music. And since it was an Irish event, Jayne had to prove her own fealty to the homeland. She made a rousing speech and soon someone was yelling, “Sing with Marty, sing with Marty!”
I was pushed over to the microphone where Jayne stood.
“Do you know ‘The Town I Love So Well?’” Jayne asked.
“Sure,” I said, knowing that the song is about 20 minutes long and totally uncertain why she would ask for that song. But we did it.
We were standing eyeball to eyeball around a microphone, Jayne belting out every word as we went through the whole story of Derry. Perhaps for her, as Mayor, it was symbolic of her aspiration to make Chicago a better town. “I can only pray for a brand new day for the town I love so well,” goes the last line of the song, which is beautiful, except it comes 19 minutes and 45 seconds down the pike. Jayne wasn’t the best of singers, but enthusiastic. Her singing was better than her re-election campaign though. Still I smile when I think back on her and those narrowback politicians. They thought like Irish and fought like Irish. Jayne allowed the filming of the movie The Blues Brothers in Chicago, and for that she should have a statue erected to her. But in true Chicago fashion, something better has been done: the automotive interchange that unites I-290 and I-90 and spins off I-55 a couple miles south is all named after her. Thousands of swearing truck drivers, scared visitors on their first foray to the Windy City, and I-Phone reading commuters hunker down at that spaghetti bowl of roadway every morning and afternoon. Jayne would have loved the chaos, I figure.
It was St. Patrick’s Day that put the Banshees into high gear. For at that time of the year not only did the regular pubs want a band, but the Knights of Columbus groups, the country clubs with their WASP-ish take on the holiday, and the odd tour boat filled with St. Patrick’s Parade revelers would be vying for an Irish band. And a lot of bands fought to have a slice of the St. Paddy pie, Irish and non-Irish alike. There was a group, whose name I can’t remember, that had the right idea to dress up as Germans for Oktoberfest, Italians for St. Joseph’s Day, and all in green for St. Patrick’s Day. But for the places that wanted a bona fide Irish band, we were a good choice and the phones would start ringing to hire us in January.
A typical St. Patrick’s Day would consist of four or five gigs of one or two hours, with a lot of driving between. There were no cell phones in those days, so I wore a watch and had to call each venue the day prior to confirm the start time, save a parking spot for us to quickly park, and most importantly supply some food to keep us going. It was supposed to be pulled off with military precision, but never did that happen.
We would try to dress well for the shows. In the early days we all wore different outfits. Brian would have an Irish cap on. I would have a vest and white shirt, and Bert would wear a jacket. Mary always wore a lovely green flowered dress. Later we got wise and had the three lads all decked out in matching Kelly green Arnold Palmer jackets with grey slacks. It was a good look and set us apart even more from most groups. We were an odd outfit: part Irish showband, part bluegrass group, part family-band, and part traditional Irish, and we didn’t give a damn what others thought of us.
The first gig would be playing on the boat the Spirit of Chicago. We would all pile into Mary’s Crown Victoria and put the sound system and our instruments into the trunk. Down to Navy Pier we would roll, and we would trundle out the sound system and set up for the early revelers. A group of excited step dancers, released from grade school for the day, would also be on hand to help us celebrate. These kids would have simple Irish outfits on. It would be several years before we would start seeing the result of A.R.D. (after River Dance) with the $1000 glittering, bejeweled dresses and bouncy curl wigs.
Down the Chicago River we would sail to where the river was dyed green near the Michigan Avenue bridge. Revelers would be out early, wearing loud green hats, scarves, and huge sunglasses. The deck of the boat would be swarming with Irish-for-the-day types, having green beer and enjoying the view of other revelers lining up over the bridge.
We would play several sets and then play for the step dancers. I would look nervously at my watch, for we had to keep moving to make our next stop at WGN Radio. We would do a radio interview and play a tune or two for Kathy O’Malley and Judy Markey. They both loved Bertie. Bert was a handsome man, with sparkling greenish grey eyes and snow white hair. His soft brogue could charm any lady within hearing distance of it. So Bert would chat with them and then we would play a couple of traditional Irish tunes. All the time, I would be checking the clock to make sure we would make our next stop on time.
And soon it would be on to a pub for another two sets. Depending on which pub hired us, that could be a dash out to Palatine, Illinois for a stint at Durty Nellie’s or over to Grandpa’s in Glenview for their St. Patrick’s celebration. Soon it was two o’clock and we were only halfway into the day. It was a tradition to play at FitzGerald’s, and so we would run out to Berwyn. There we would wolf down corn beef sandwiches and play another two sets. Paul and Mary McHugh would play for the step dancers, then we would get up and play. Finally, we would vacate the stage for the big act of the evening, the Dooley Brothers.
All the time, the clock is ticking. Now it would be close to 7 p.m., and I had already sung “Danny Boy” four times. We all are tired and Bert, not wishing to be rushed, would be seated at the bar having a beer and a shot of VO. Brian would be off securing some food for us to eat as we drove to the next show. Mary would be pacing nervously, her fiddle packed and her jacket on. And I would be trying to get paid. Somehow we would make it back to the Crown Vic, maneuver the big hulking beast out of the crowded parking lot, and running late, hightail it back out to the suburbs to a country club for their St. Patrick’s affair. Nothing ran smoother than Mary’s Crown Victoria after I got it up to 80 miles an hour. St. Patrick’s Day was the only day of the year that the car had its speedometer over 25 mph, and as I hit the gas, a puff of carbon would kick out of the tailpipe. Mary would nervously say, “Oh no, Marty, too fast.” But we had to get to the next show and set up.
Thankfully, the country club gigs would be rather subdued events. The manager would always look at us like we were savages brought in from the wild. And I guess in some ways we were. We would be set up in a far corner, and the general rule was to be “heard but not seen.” No drinks at the bar. Bert would have to get his beer on the sly.
The members of the club would come politely dressed in green in complete contrast to the hooting and hollering hordes that were crowding the bars 40 miles to the east. The whole evening would consist of us playing background music as they dined. We would have to dive into Irish-American standards like “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” And I would be asked to sing “Danny Boy.” It was never too long of an evening, and the great pay made up for us missing all the fun going on back at the clubs. But by this time the whole band would be exhausted, and there was a huge relief that all the clubs and obligations had been met with no hiccups.
After the last number was played, the guests would vanish like a receding floor. The manager, assured now that the band he hired had delivered and free of the need to maintain appearances, would invite us over for a drink at the club bar. And we would head over to the bar and have some drinks. Slowly we would pack up one last time for the day. We would all pile back into the Crown Victoria and rumble back into the city at a respectable 55 miles per hour. It would be about midnight when we would get to Bert’s girlfriend Eileen Fleming’s house. Eileen would have some tea waiting, and we would sit around laughing about the day and not really wanting to let the excitement of St. Patrick’s end.
Dear friends of Switchback,
I was asked by the staff of the Venu, a residential resort community in Scottsdale, Arizona, to write an article about how Switchback has adopted them as not only a place to play, but as a base camp for our Southwestern U.S. touring. I realized that this article could explain the synergy that is created by our friends who support our music and aid in our ability to bring our music to new audiences. This article might also inspire you to join in the effort.
This cooperative effort is what I call “making a WayGood World.” I tease that “The WayGood World is a vast and ever-expanding Empire that is larger than Switchback itself.” People new to our music, and the close relationship we maintain with our friends, are confused. Some wonder if we are a cult! We aren’t, nor do we offer Kool-Aid at any of our concerts, nor espouse dressing alike or having our haircuts all look like Dr. Spock’s.
Our friends realize that I am referring to that collective joy that has been created between them and ourselves. Picture a bunch of Deadheads that actually help the Grateful Dead tour, donate money to make records, sell merchandise and spread the word about their music, and you get the picture. The Venu is a location where there now resides a whole passel of Switchheads. And it didn’t happen overnight.
The Venu is a collection of condominiums and rental properties, very much like a lot of resort communities in the Southwest. So there is a community room and a swimming pool. A lot of people who stay there are “snowbirds” coming from the colder climes of North America, with a few European stragglers thrown in. The result is a very vibrant community that coalesces around wintertime. Add in one very determined, energetic friend of Switchback, Norm Weitzman, and faster than a flu-virus the joy of the WayGood World can spread.
Norm used to live in Chicago and moved permanently to Arizona a few years ago. Keen on having the band come to the Southwest, he reached out to Brian and myself. Norm did two important things to make it happen. He offered us a place to stay and he created some initial concerts at the Venu that in turn brought in more friends to the music. This happened not by coincidence, but by some very thoughtful planning on his part. The first concert we did was in the great room of the Venu. We had driven down to Arizona, so were able to bring our equipment. The result was an enthusiastic embrace from folks who really enjoy live music. Soon we had Diane Gilbert making dinner for the band and that then morphed into a potluck dinner for the residents who attended the concert. The general public soon started coming due to word of mouth, so the traffic (and subtle marketing) at the Venu increased.
Norm decided that we should have an outdoor concert. The beautiful desert behind the Venu was the logical choice to have it. Surrounded by stately saguaro cacti and desert plants, the event took place much like a Mickey Rooney “Andy Hardy” movie. We decided to see how much extension cord we could run out from the Venu. John Steinsky volunteered to film the event and Brenda Steinsky helped mobilize folks to come out and attend. Flyers were created announcing the date and pretty soon an amazing “Concert in the Desert” was created. It was nicknamed “Desert Norm” in honor of Norm and the name stuck. Pretty soon the public heard about this concert and came from as far as Sedona and Mesa to attend, along with a dish to pass. Some friends of Switchback, vacationing in Arizona, made the trip to the Venu and in turn met the Switchback friends living there. The community-creating aspect of the shows brought new attention to the Venu and new friends to Switchback and the WayGood World. And the unique setting of “Desert Norm,” with the mountains bathed in the red-orange sunset, hummingbirds, quail and the odd javelina walking by, made the music that much more magical.
Obviously Brian and I carve out a living making music and it takes money to travel. So over the course of three years, Norm doggedly worked on having Switchback come at regular intervals to the greater Phoenix area. And much like an invading army, Switchback and our supporters at the Venu have collectively struggled to get a toehold on the beachhead of regular shows in Arizona, as well as back in their summer homes. Robin Gilbert has been working with our agent to have us play in Canada and John and Brenda Steinsky have plans for a future Switchback concert on Prince Edward Island. Joel Greenburg and his wife, Judi, have mentioned our invading Boston.
In addition, Switchback now maintains a complete sound system at the Venu. We fly to Phoenix, rent a van and head to our Southwest home. We not only continue to present concerts at the Venu, but plan to offer a poolside party as well as some other special events in the future. The desert concerts will continue with the next one being offered on March 24.
We have been blessed over the years to have people who believe and support our music. Many of you reading this did what Norm and the folks at the Venu are doing. I would encourage you to mention where and how you helped in the comments section of our blog page to encourage others to do the same. We have been able to travel and present our music without the support of a major label or company because we have the support and company of our friends. As I have also said, “We are only as successful and popular as our friends wish us to be.” Thanks to our friends, like the ones at the Venu, it truly is becoming a WayGood World.
Dear Friends of Switchback,
Four years have gone by since the polar vortex of 2014 and the birth of my daughter, Áine. In a lot of ways, I now measure the years by her growth. It’s been fun to line her up with the well-traveled bass case and see the changes. And, so far, she has been willing to cooperate with these yearly pictures. I don’t know how it will go when she turns 13.
The big change this year for Áine has been preschool. Preschool did not exist when I was a kid, and so it was sort of an odd thing to have to enroll in it to begin with. Growing up, kindergarten (what was considered formal education) did not start until age 6. In our family, the years of three to five were spent doing things that made sense, like eating and learning how to flush the toilet.
Mom had courses for us, like Diaper Folding 101, which was an advanced study of taking a diaper out of the dryer and folding it. I got pretty good at it by the time I was four and so I was advanced to Sock Mating. This course I flunked out of and still to this day am a remedial sock mater.
So with Áine heading over to preschool, I was befuddled by having two more years of education prior to kindergarten. And, since we enrolled her in Catholic school, two more years of tuition. But Annie and I reasoned (and our calculators confirmed) that in some ways it was more reasonable than a nanny or daycare.
I was all for the idea of taking her on the road with Switchback and letting her education start there. However, Annie felt that pre-K (the technical term used nowadays) was the way to go. Brian and I do not have the best track record for keeping the Switchback van clean. We also lose things from time to time, like microphone stands and well, whole vans. It would be “Two Men and a Baby” meets “Dumb and Dumber.” So, Annie won out and we enrolled Áine where she would be able to eat something other than trail mix.
She was excited to be going to school and became part of a class called the Caterpillars. Now, anyone who has a kid born in the last 20 years would quickly recognize that this is a reference to the Eric Carle book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” This is staple pre-K reading. Carle has built an empire on it, and for us parents, that translates into “Hungry Caterpillar” videos, stuffed dolls, games, and the like. A slew of spin-off books by Carle have also become “must haves” in this weird Pre-K world. My book is going to be called “The Empty Wallet.”
There are about 20 kids in her class and already the dynamics of personality are emerging. Some kids are “popular,” which at almost four means that you get hugged by the other kids and asked to be a friend. Some kids are lone wolves, hanging out by their cubby holes where the books, coats and shoes are placed. Áine is very social and both types of kids are confusing to her. She just wants everyone “to be my friend.” And so tirelessly she will go around hugging kids, occasionally getting bitten or hugged in return, depending on the kid.
Dropping her off at school last November, I was very proud when she approached a new child crying by her cubby hole. Áine put her arm around her and said, “Don’t be scared. I was scared too when I started here, but you will like it.” Already an old salt in the Pre-K world. The little girl hugged Áine back, excited to have a “new friend.”
Some kids get weepy when leaving their parents. Áine walked into the classroom and did not look back. She is very happy to see us at the end of the day but already a streak of independence flares up, especially as I try to get her buckled into the child seat, ask her to eat dinner, go to bed, blow her nose, or say her prayers. Already she is starting to write songs and cuts me off if I start singing with her. “Poppa, I am singing.” So I sort of know my place in the music business around our house.
The hardest part is seeing the child emerge from the toddler. Pre-K is not a toddler world. The kids are learning how to write (cursive as well, thank God) and do some simple math, read a bit, and oh, run a computer program. So much for folding diapers.
One thing I could not wrap my head around was being asked to attend “parent-teacher” conferences. “C’mon,” I said to Annie. “What are we going to talk about? I am not going to discuss her macaroni and glue art!” But sure enough, I went dutifully to meet her teacher. I suspect this was a ruse to train me instead. Annie and I sat in the little chairs and discussed seriously her writing skills and social skills and looked at how many stickers she had by her picture for good behavior. That last one is a good idea for Switchback.
Still, this veteran of Pre-K is our little girl, and so great to hold, carry and play with. I think of how Brian talked of playing the board game “Candyland” with his daughter, Siobhan. And now here I am, purposely losing to Áine as he did to his daughter.
We spent the Christmas vacation building pillow forts, seeing a movie (her first), and watching with delight as she reveled in the magic of the holidays. She was a star in the nativity play. Literally a star, as in starry night. I think that was less of an acting challenge than the kid who was the donkey. But those roles, like donkeys and shepherds, are for the Butterflies, who are a year older and wiser.
I realize as she grows and I age, the gift of now, of what time I get to spend with her is so precious. As Bil Keane best put it, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”
My wife Annie sent me an interesting column, written by Kat Eschner for Smithsonian.com. It was about none other than the fantastic military marching music maker himself, John Philip Sousa. The inspiration of the Sousaphone (which everyone knows is the hybrid of a tuba and helicon -- what the heck a helicon is, is anybody’s guess) and known by his nickname “The March King,” Sousa created fantastic military marches. Any lover of Monty Python has listened to his “Liberty Bell” march, which is stirring and able to make the most sedentary of humans stand up straight and start stepping.
In an essay titled “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” which he wrote for Appleton Magazine in 1906, Sousa laments this horrible new era, the era of recorded music. He sees that recorded music will take away the feeling of community, creativity and class. Anyone watching a DJ gyrate at a wedding can see that his prediction has, alas, come true. In the essay, Sousa states that mechanical music is “sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries, or popular novels” and would form a “substitute for human skill, intelligence and soul.” In other words: “Beware the DJ.” He also was right about political war cries, but that is for another article.
In his essay, Sousa was railing in part about the lack of composer rights, an issue that dogs songwriters to this day. But in a larger sense, before television and the iPhone, Sousa laments the loss of the common man playing an instrument in community.
When the essay was written, in 1906, the phonograph was just starting to take off. Sousa was afraid that it would chip away at the unique “musical mecca” that America had become. He testified to Congress that “these talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy...in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day.”
When I was a boy, my great Uncle Frank reminisced about his youth in 1906 Dubuque, Iowa, when neighbors would do just that, gather at homes to play the piano and sing. Everyone learned the piano because it was a social instrument for entertainment and community. The creation of the phonograph and later devices did not stop music. But it did change community.
What Sousa felt was that the vital and vibrant part of our sense of “we” that centers around community participation would be laid waste by a profusion of technology, and a commercial lack of taste.
In an era when laws have to be created to fine people from texting while crossing the street, the danger of devices does lie in the elimination of community, of literally seeing our neighbor and being in the moment. Why talk to someone when I can text anyone? And why attend a concert when I can watch it on my phone? (Or worse, spend a concert so consumed with trying to capture it on our phones so we can share it to social media rather than actually experience communion with the artist giving their all on stage.) We are now distressed by what is happening halfway around the globe without knowing what is happening halfway down the block.
Sousa also lamented “the general assault on personality in music.” Just watch the CMA awards and you will see he wasn’t too far off the mark. Like devices that are mass produced, taste trends toward vanilla in an effort to accommodate the majority.
So what is the lesson to take away from this? As the holidays approach, get out to see live, original music. Start a house concert series in your home and foster community. Learn an instrument or put the smartphone in the drawer for an hour or two. Encourage your children and grandchildren to pick up an instrument with an eye toward mastering it.
I think Sousa would want us to shake things up, to break the spell that mechanical devices can give us, if we allow them to. Sure, I am grateful for technology and the fact that even ol’ John Philip Sousa was recorded leading his band for me to hear today.
But anyone who has joined Switchback in a cave concert, or jingled keys during a Christmas show, or looked over the hills of Ireland while Brian’s mandolin strums, understands that we are creatures of the moment.
Those moments cannot be recorded. One has to be there, be present and share that moment with others. And sharing those moments together is the ultimate culmination of being alive.
American Roots & Celtic Soul