The shock of the fall, still reverberating, was Warren Argo’s sudden death on September 27. WAR RRN: his big red dog had learned to say his name with the right intensity and joy. He was larger than life, always everywhere at the center of things where music, dance, and community were being made. “He was a person of many parts: fine musician, magnificent dance caller, discerning sound engineer, canny thinker, big bear-hugger, and kind, kind man….A room always brightened when [Warren] entered.” (from a Northwest Folklife Festival tribute)
It’s New Year, and I’ve just returned from Berea, where I lived thirty years ago, and the annual reunion of friends old and new called Christmas Country Dance School. I’ve known five generations of some families there. Being back always brings a flood of memories, and the delights of seeing the new generation take hold. One year it was a Kentucky rapper’s version of Green Eggs and Ham. This year, forty children dancing a Cherokee chant to greet the sun.
Warren: coming across the room with an enormous smile that says you are the exact person I would most rather see. Gradually the awareness sinks in that he has that smile for everyone, all the time. What can that mean?
Warren: introducing his banjo class at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, talking about the belly chakra and banjo as energy generator. Pointing out the musicality of one person’s note choices, the clean rhythm a dance band puts forth. Making you want to do better not by criticizing but by pinpointing, with exquisite language and true enthusiasm, the thing to aspire to.
I don’t remember meeting Warren; he was simply always there. He was the caller when I played my first out-of-town dances, the one who nosed out the café with the hottest salsa, who found the humor on the community center blackboard: “Muscle of the Week: Trapezius.” The one who welcomed me home over the years.
After a day of dancing and making (music, crafts, a mummer’s play) we at Christmas School sit down at Parlor. Parlor keeps alive the Kentucky family tradition of gathering around the fireplace for stories and songs, and even though there are three hundred in this room, it feels cozy and everyone belongs. There are songs we sing together and learn by osmosis; chances to enjoy a performance; stories and jokes that return year after year. Pat Napier tells the Old Dry Fry stories and we all chime in, “Everybody knows Old Dry Fry.”
It’s unnatural to write about Warren in my own voice alone. I have to let the community speak. Warren was community.
“Who else will ever be as happy to see us as Warren, as warm? Who will tell me about airplane mechanics? Who will make that amazing thin-crust pizza with enough anchovies? Who’ll play banjo in that sweet thrummy way? We all must hang on to each other.” —Molly Tenenbaum
“Maybe it was one of those 204 moments at Fiddle Tunes. A band lab dance where you play a tune or two. A coming out party for the closet musician, a jump in the deep end to the stage and the mike… or the first time you “got it”. That crooked tune, that funky rhythm. He’d notice. That moment. And there he was. Maybe right up front face to face, or way back in the back of the room, shaking his head back and forth, pacing around, shouting his approval with glee. How is it that Warren noticed all our milestones and recognized us each stepping stone of the way?”—Moe Bebe
I picture a memorial pole in the tradition his Pacific Northwest home, a moveable pole that would go to all the places he loved and was loved, with traditional carvings of Bear, Dog, and Banjo, and brushed aluminum tie-dyed para-glider wings to catch light and air.
When I was young, New England elder Bob McQuillen was new old tradition (and still is!). He writes tunes for people in the music and dance communities. Some of them have become chestnuts—Dancing Bear, Amelia. In Berea, Al White is becoming that guy, his tunes the go-to tunes, and I don’t quite get it that he’s a grandfather when I think we’re still twenty-five. And Kent, who was the bright, quick teenager on the dance floor—somehow he did become Old Dry Fry, and we spontaneously echo “Everybody knows Kent Gilbert” in a group rhythm that feels foreordained.
Linda Laing posts a photo of Warren at Morningtown Pizza, which brings a flurry of remembrance to the Facebook fireside where we’ve gathered. Me, I remember the Morningtown aura when I was a teen in Seattle, had no idea Warren was the one who started it. I love this photo, the stillness and readiness in his young face. He looked for a better way to live, and found it in spades.
At Christmas School there’s a group of friends who grew up together once or twice a year at camp, and have stayed close into their twenties and thirties. One night at Parlor this year, they stood up and presented the song by which they were cajoled into leaving the camp dance parties at bedtime. The “Pied Piper” sang it as he led them to their cabins, and they listened for their names to be included: “Sarah’s at the engine, Owen rings the bell, Hazel swings the lantern to show that all is well…”.
Maybe it is raining where our train will ride,
But all the little travelers are snug and warm inside.
Somewhere there is sunshine, somewhere there is day,
Somewhere there is Morningtown, many miles away.
Warren would have loved this moment.
Warren boarded the long train, singing all the way. The kids who went to sleep in summer dusk cradle kids of their own, for whom sleep is still the longest journey, and Morningtown still so new.
The song Morningtown is by Malvina Reynolds, copyright 1957.