Dear Switchback friends,
I am writing this from my hotel room at the Grand Majestic Hotel in Prague, Czech Republic. Last week we traveled to Ireland with 60 friends from coast to coast, north to south of the USA (plus one from Japan).
With the exception of a few, everyone had seen us play. And of those who did, they remembered the moment they decided that their relationship with our band should be something more than just being a fan.
Joining us on this tour was perhaps a subconscious effort to seal the friendship. And, certainly for Brian and myself, making real friends who support our music has always been paramount, and a conscious effort. These folks become part of our “Waygood Family.” As Sue Arnold, our business manager put it best, “Good friends make good family.”
Which brings me to Thanksgiving, the holiday that we are celebrating in the United States next week. In some ways, people either love or dread this holiday because of the idea of family.
Some people look no further than their DNA to determine who is family and who is not. Here in Prague, we tourists discovered one ironic display of blood (perhaps bloody?) family at Saint Vitus’ Cathedral. According to local legend, the beloved Duke Wenceslas was slaughtered by his younger, power-hungry, probably jealous, brother. Posthumously, Wenceslas was not only declared a saint but also king... so I guess that made everything OK. (Pictured above is Wenceslas with his grandmother, St. Ludmila, who was also assassinated. By whom? Wenceslas' mother!)
Sometimes blood family takes for granted that family are also friends. But when one looks at true friendship, there is a commitment to service unbound by blood obligation. Obviously this can take many forms, but at heart this is a surrendering of one’s own interest for the other.
I think of my own friends and the simple displays of love and self-sacrifice we have shared through the years. The only time I have lost a friend was when that friend decided that his own interest superseded mine.
The original idea behind the holiday of Thanksgiving was to give thanks for the many blessings we have received. As blessings go, true friendship is very rare. And only true friends can become family. However, it is very rare for blood family to become true friends.
That doesn’t mean that somehow every friendship is equal or that every friend rises to “family” status. What does exist is the potential to surrender to that notion.
If we believe the Thanksgiving story, the Native Americans extended their own generosity so that the English could survive. Their donations of corn, squash and turkey suggested, “We could have friendship.”
What went wrong was that at some point the colonists’ own personal interest superseded that of their newfound friends. It’s a good illustration of the complexities of family and friendship. Good friendship has to be practiced in order to create good family.
This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful especially for the fans who become friends, and later, family. Here’s to many more shows, tours and meals shared between us in this WayGood World of ours!
Dear friends of Switchback,
Though my hometown is Woodstock, Illinois and will always be, I reside (when I am not travelling) in Chicago. Rogers Park, Chicago to be exact. It is the second time in my life that I have lived in this neighborhood. The first, when I was a student at Loyola University from 1981-1985. It was then, as now, “real city living” with a lot of people of all walks of life, walking around. A place where the undergrads rubbed elbows with the underprivileged. Where all sorts of shops and stores beckoned to the curious to explore. I bought my first bass guitar at the local music store, Flatts and Sharpes. And, I had my first professional haircut (yes, I had my hair cut at home until college) in Rogers Park.
So, it has been a place where I entered adulthood, and upon graduation, I was convinced that would be the last of Rogers Park. As a person who loves wide open spaces, and the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, Rogers Park offered neither. I was weary of the winter along Lake Michigan and the dirty, dog poop-festooned snow. I felt that the reality of so many people crowded my spirit. I thought, “This will be the last I will see of you, Rogers Park,” as I moved away and on with my life.
Rogers Park had the last laugh.
It was with some surprise that I found myself living back again in Rogers Park. As much as I had changed, it had as well. It was still the gritty, melting pot of cultures and people, cheek to jowl. But now, setting some roots in the neighborhood, that diverse-city that is Rogers Park became beautiful to me.
The Cambodian grandmother in native dress, smoking a homemade cigar on one block, only to be replaced by the Pakistani woman in full burqa on the next. The improbable visuals of big city living, such as seeing Nigerian families in their vibrant Sunday best, walking past a plump señora at her taqueria, busily selling carne asada tacos to famished Bulgarians.
And now, as a homeowner, it was I who was raking leaves, picking up after dogs and late night revelers' Modelo bottles. I was now a part of Rogers Park, a homeowner and not some college-aged observer.
Digging a ditch to bury some electrical cable some years back, I found a 300 year-old clay pipe that was discarded at what must have been some 18th century lakeside camp for a Pottowatamie Indian or Voyageur perhaps. Now it was my backyard. Amazing how this place had and still changes.
The lake still is the main attraction, with its deep blue on summer days with huge thunderheads towering over it. It was and is the edge of a watery wilderness that Chicago and Rogers Park in particular is perched on. I came to understand that this great finger on the hand of the largest freshwater deposit in the world was indeed our Rocky Mountains.
And slowly, slowly, I have learned to enjoy the life of being in a place of people, in one of the most diverse communities in the United States, home to over 80 different ethnicities.
City living can be tough. The homeless man who liked my driveway for a bathroom. Occasional prostitutes wending their way along Clark Street, gaunt-faced and twitchy as they drink from their extra large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups. Young gang-bangers hanging outside the market, nervously eyeing oncoming traffic. The human condition is on full display. And this shadier element somehow exists with the other, more beautiful part of being in Rogers Park.
Last week, on a tree-lined street not far from my home, a killer at point blank shot a 73 year-old man walking his dog. A day later, at a popular Rogers Park beach, the same killer struck down a runner. And since it was in Rogers Park, it was no surprise that the victims were as diverse as the neighborhood. An elderly gay man, and a young hasidic Jew. Killed by some guy wearing a scarf across his face and probably from an equally diverse background. Having not been caught yet as of this writing, I don’t know who or why or what would prompt such reckless disregard for life in such a rich, diverse-city.
Being on the road and viewing it from the perspective of Evergreen, Colorado, that place, my home, looked like it was menacing, ugly and dangerous. The sort of place where most people would decide, like I had in 1985, to gladly see the back of. Surely there must be a less risky locale. I worried for Annie and Áine and felt guilty as the worst thing happening in Evergreen that day appeared to be a jaywalking bull elk.
To leave would be wrong. There is a certain responsibility to being part of a neighborhood, to celebrate the good and endure the bad. To run is to submit to the fear that the bad will win. Why should others who can’t run be left behind? It seems unfair.
At the same time, heroism is the furthest thing from my mind. I would love to see this guy caught. I would love to see the gangs disbanded. I would welcome the end to the hookers, dealers and petty thieves. But in an odd way, that “gentrification” of sorts would take away some of the parts that makes Rogers Park what it is. The attempt to sanitize the city would only sweep the human condition under the carpet. It would still be there, just pushed to another neighborhood or even the suburbs.
Better in some ways to face it. To walk the same streets as the killer and acknowledge the hooker and homeless. Shop the market where the gang-bangers gather and embrace the honesty that is living in a modern city, with its sins and sinners.
So, we neighbors look out for each other. We learn to be street smart and cautious in our ways. But still, we gather for the festivals and linger along the lake. Our very existence, in the face of danger, real danger, is an act of defiance in and of itself. Perhaps it is foolish, but I believe seeing the full human condition is important for Áine, important for myself.
For as bad as things can seem, Rogers Park is always filled with light and beauty by virtue of its residents. In my little block alone there’s Áine’s babysitter, Ana, who came from Portugal and shows nothing but love to our daughter. Our neighbors across the street, Dee and Walter, old hippies and artists who have witness the neighborhood transform several times over since they moved here in the '70s. And down the street live Nadia and Sandeep, awaiting the arrival of their new baby who will combine the beauty of his Mexican and Indian genes. Around the corner there's Dusty and Jason, both college professors and like us, seasoned veterans of our little block. Or the newest couple Chance and David, moving back into the home David’s great-grandfather lived in. And of course, just a 10-minute walk away there's Annie's best friend Chandra, who knows just about everyone in Rogers Park, and who for Annie is probably the number one perk of moving here seven years ago.
I could go on about the diversity in the beauty that in its daily simplicity outshines any darkness. And, I am grateful for the rich tapestry of people. For as beautiful nature is, it is the nature of the beauty in us all that actually makes this world remarkable. And for that reason, I do find Rogers Park a beautiful place to live.
[Our friends Martin and Brian have asked me to drop the old phonograph needle on some of their tunes, perhaps some lesser known, and report back to everyone.]
For all the glory autumn ushers in, Mother Nature growls, too. Here comes Switchback backed by the United Nations reminding us we could all get walloped like, well, like a twister in a trailer park.
Leave it to Martin and Brian to put some fun back in the forecast while the southeast soaks and the UN gives us a mere dozen years to adjust the world’s thermostat. And it all starts in McHenry County, Illinois, up where Martin McCormack spent his boyhood.
In the calm before the storm, Brian FitzGerald’s mandolin has a light plunky piano sound. Could be raindrops. Meanwhile Martin’s Michael Kelly acoustic bass softly rumbles low like far-distant thunder.
“Twister in a Trailer Park” is a tale of woe and weather. A teen-aged boy is blown away by a teen-aged beauty. “Her love hit me like a twister in a trailer park,” mourns heartstruck Marty. Then it’s verse after verse of smiling Switchback close harmony recounting all those earmarks of serious funnel clouds: weird-colored sky, big hail and airborne cows.
This song is a bonus track on 2013’s live CD American Roots and Celtic Soul. Album producers Jim and Dylan Sundberg mean to put you in the room with Switchback, close to the front row, for all twelve cuts. They do a fine job. “Twister . .” even invents some excuse for the audience to bark, arf and woof. Listeners are welcome to howl along at home.
Doug Kamholz is an itinerant washboard player who has freelanced for the New York Times, Washington Post and many lesser media. His most honest work was as a pig farmer in central Illinois, where he now lives and occasionally makes dinner for Switchback.
[Our friends Martin and Brian have asked me to drop the old phonograph needle on some of their tunes, perhaps some lesser known, and report back to everyone.]
There’s hardly a genre in modern U.S. music any wider or more inclusive than Americana. McCormack and Brian FitzGerald have a stake under that big tent.
We listeners come to this music looking to hear familiar sounds: strummed guitars, harmonizing and beats we’ve known forever. We also come to hear earthy details, placenames and histories that resonate in our lives.
Switchback treats us time and again to these cultural snapshots, these short stories that long linger in the telling of our time. On their 2002 The Fire that Burns (re-released on their recent Twentieth Anniversary Collection) we get several. One is “The Farmer Leaves the Dell,” a sad update on a song many of us sang as children. This time there’s no Hi-ho, the derry-o; now it’s failed crops and poor credit, our farmer “hoodwinked in a desperate sell.”
Brian’s clear voice tells this farm-crisis tale. His story rings all the truer and rings all the closer to our hearts because it rides on American musical history, the very essence of Americana. Still, for all the misfortune, Brian’s vocal spins a tale not with all hope lost for all time.
Martin joins in on the chorus. Here their harmonized voices make the farmer’s plight into something more universal, surely a trait of this genre as well as others. They sing: “When you don’t know which way to go / It’s a lonely road.” And what would Americana be without its much-used image of the road?
My own September is wonderfully full of this kind of music, first Jason Isbell leaning toward the country side and then the Avett Brothers’ grungy bluegrass. Next month it’s Switchback taking a local stage. I can’t wait to revel in more well-told stories, sound-paintings to help us see ourselves and frame the fascinating world around us.
is an itinerant washboard player who has freelanced for the New York Times, Washington Post and many lesser media. His most honest work was as a pig farmer in central Illinois, where he now lives and occasionally makes dinner for Switchback.)
Rick Kogan Contact Reporter Chicago Tribune
They are road warriors with the gentlest of souls, these two musicians named Martin McCormack and Brian FitzGerald who are the band Switchback. And they will tell you that there remain great adventures and special joys after nearly 30 years of playing and writing and traveling together.
“One year we decided to log the miles we were driving. It was more than 35,000 and we decided never to log the miles again,” says FitzGerald. “Now, if I wanted to be a melancholy Irishman, I would tell you that there is a semi out there somewhere with our names on it. We’ve been very lucky.”
They have also been very good. “Fighting against being pigeonholed,” as McCormack puts it, they have powerfully mingled the genres of American roots and Celtic soul, writing and playing songs that have created a distinctive and engaging body of work.
They have produced, through their independent Way Good Music label, more than a dozen albums as well as three PBS specials and some concert DVDs. For three years in a row, the pair was named the Top Irish Group by the Irish Musicians Association. They have opened for Jethro Burns, John Hartford and Leon Russell, shared stages with Gaelic Storm and Chicago’s fiddle-playing wonder Liz Carroll.
Praise has come easy, as this from Music Connection Magazine: “The words ‘American Roots & Celtic Soul’ only begin to describe this unusual act, whose vocal prowess is as pure as it is unique. There is no denying the stunning vocal blends that are achieved by this duo."
Then there is this from the liner notes for their 2005 album, “Falling Water River,” a tribute to fallen soldiers in contemporary wars, written by former Chicagoan Ron Pen, who was a music professor at the University of Kentucky: “(This) is an astonishing ramble through the heart of Americana soul, a love story redolent of Walt Whitman’s lyrical verse. … It is the sound of America itself.”
But there are, on a consistent basis, subtler rewards.
“If you really want to make music for a living and for a life, you have to get out there and play everywhere,” says McCormack. “We will share our music through community outreach. We play retirement homes, we play churches, we play schools and we play prisons.”
“It is a good thing to get off the beaten path,” says FitzGerald. “There are a lot of small towns where people have a real hunger for live music. There is something almost religious and something certainly magical about a live performance.”
They told me that five years ago and they told me that again a few weeks ago when they stopped here to play this year’s one and only local appearance.
“We are still at it. Two hundred shows a year and there are a lot of other artists doing the very same thing, toiling away, driving from place to place to share their music,” says FitzGerald.
Their road began in the mid-1980s at the corner of Bothwell and Wilson streets in northwest suburban Palatine. This was the location of a tavern/music club named Durty Nellies, and still lively at 180 Smith St., its home since 2003.
McCormack was on stage with some brothers and a sister. There were 10 kids in his family, a brood that made up, as McCormack puts it, “the von Trapp family of McHenry County.”
He was wearing a green V-neck sweater while playing bass, guitar and singing. FitzGerald, who has eight siblings, was in the audience and was eventually lured on stage to play guitar and mandolin and sing. He and McCormack hit it off and would play together for some ensuing years in a band called the Wailin' Banshees, which focused energetically and effectively on traditional Irish music.
“As a rebellion against that, Marty and I started writing our own songs and playing them between sets. That basically alienated the others in the band,” says FitzGerald.
They absorbed all manner of sounds and words at FitzGerald’s, the Berwyn bastion of musical eclecticism conveniently owned by Brian’s father and two of his brothers. “Our music and songwriting were so deeply influenced by being there so much,” says McCormack. “It was our musical finishing school.”
In 1993 they formed Switchback and have been on the road ever since.
Somehow, during all the shows and all the miles, they find time to keep writing songs as well as a lively blog and newsletter. McCormack has also written a very good book about his growing up in Woodstock. Titled “Rose Farm Road,” it is now making the rounds of publishers.
Sunday they are performing at a place called Shep’s Riverside Bar and Grille in Lansing, Iowa, roughly 250 miles from Chicago and where FitzGerald lives with his wife, Maggie; they have two grown children, Chris and Siobhan. McCormack and his wife, Anne Baudouin de Courtenay, live in Rogers Park with their 4-year-old daughter, Aine.
Switchback’s schedule then takes them to Virginia, Florida and Colorado. In November, as they have for more than a decade, they will be leading a group on a tour of Ireland. Then in February they will embark on their third group trip to Costa Rica.
That Central American country is 3,500 miles from Chicago. You could drive there, of course, but Switchback and the 20 some people who will be joining them will be flying (there are still spaces available; more at www.waygoodmusic.com).
“It’s an amazing country, a tropical Ireland, filled with people who have a genuine kindness and sense of humor and an eagerness to get to know you,” says McCormack. “We do wind up doing a bit of driving there and the roads are pretty rugged. But there have always been good angels looking out for us, and if you are going to hit potholes, why not do it when it’s 75 degrees outside and there’s a bar on the bus?”
Chicago band Switchback keeping musical options open »
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
American Roots & Celtic Soul