Porch stories


February 7, 2012 Porch stories
Feb 072012

I can’t find his name now—which seems fitting—but he used to have a blog called “Sorry I Haven’t Written”: a collection of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the hilarious excuses you find on people’s blogs…but naturally, he gave up writing it. Please excuse me for not making excuses. I’m happy to be back.

I was happy to be back in Louisiana last week, working with Wilson Savoy on editing our film for the Old Doors/New Worlds project CD/DVD. I’m happy to be back in the world of having a new release coming soon, after a long spell without one. I’m happy to be back home for the month of February, watching forsythia and daffodils dance with frost (although the frost has been rare!).

Carson Reiners, a beautiful contemporary dancer with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work, tells me that the back is the most expressive part of the body. A friend tells me he’s loosening the bricks in his lower back with yoga, and another is learning to think like a trumpet as she backs up a jazz singer with her violin.

In Kentucky, Backlick Road is a name and a neighborhood I’ve always liked. “Lick,” in case you don’t know, is a Kentucky word for creek. Which takes me back in memory to sitting on a porch with Cratis Williams, the wonderful storyteller and scholar of Appalachian dialect, who illustrated the mountain states’ predilection for prepositions with the sentence, “Come on out up from [back] down in under there.” Good advice for anyone, I think.

One summer when I was young, I told a wiser friend that I felt I was moving backwards rather than forward in…my fiddle technique? my emotional intelligence? who knows…but I do remember his answer, in the form of a joke:

“Mister, your hat’s on backwards.”

“How do you know which way I’m going?”

Whichever way you’re going, and whether or not you see your shadow on the way there, may your winter ease into spring.

Porch time soon.

[I wrote this piece between the festival and the tsunami. Now, more than ever, we need the rich hours—not the obese, unmindful ones, but the real ones, the ones that connect us to our heritage and to the future.]

Tony Davoren's photo of the Mardis Gras created for the show Tremé. "Let's play spot the real Cajuns!" says Tony. Like my Mardis Gras: tangential, but with reality in it.

I didn’t expect to be celebrating Mardis Gras, but it turned out to be a very fat day indeed.

I’d expected grey weather, but woke to a crystal blue sky. Since unhooking from caffeine a few weeks ago, I keep being amazed at how good it feels to wake up feeling good. I wrote a “letter of thanks or apology”*. I stretched, meditated, rode my rowing machine to the tunes of the Mamou Playboys’ new cd [Mardis Gras Run, Washington-DC-style. Hey, it worked for me.] which inspired me to put on the Café des Amis shirt given me by my generous friend Larry. I put everything by the door before breakfast and left the house on time! (This is big news for me, actually, as I’m what the Swedes politely call a tidsoptimist, time optimist.)

At the Dr. Glass office, where I crunch numbers for some fine people once a week, we celebrated Philip’s birthday/Mardis Gras/International Women’s Day with King Cake and pizza. While learning something about Disk Utility, I also learned that even after waking up happy I can still be reactive and testy. Another little lesson in humility, like a handful of Mardis Gras beads casually tossed out by the day, avidly grasped, easily forgotten and trampled—or treasured.

At the studio Karen shares with me, I helped a student make the final choice between two fiddles, to live with over the coming years. She’s fifteen and her passion for the music knocks my socks off. Then, cancellations gave me a two-hour break. Karen’s face lit up when she heard that: “Do you want to eat with us?” ergh, I thought, I’d love to, but I was really looking forward to practicing. “We’re having pancakes for Shrove Tuesday, and mango lassi.” Well, how could I resist an offer like that!?!  She’d meant to add vegetarian sausage, so I made a run to Trader Joe’s [Mardis Gras Run, suburban-Maryland-style**]. When I walked in, the muzak was cranking Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me by The Wild Magnolias, and since it was Mardis Gras people smiled instead of looking away in embarassment when I couldn’t help dancing through the aisles. Dinner with the family was wonderful—conversation about music, Gabe’s master class with Joseph Alessi, sweet and savory toppings and crunchy cucumbers and red peppers on the side. And everyone looked handsome in black clothing under the bright beads Karen gave us.

My next lesson was with a student who brings great emotional depth and imagination to her study of Irish tunes, so it’s easy to respond creatively to her—we’re partners in her project. I told her she could find slip jig dancers on YouTube (shuddering a little to hear myself actually suggesting YouTube) and then said, “You know those kitchen-table stories, where you’re sitting around with kids or old friends on a fall night and someone’s telling a story, and no one’s texting or jumping up to take a phone call, you’re all hanging on the next word?” She nodded and smiled in recognition. “Make this tune your kitchen-table story. Tell it ten different ways. Who’s around the table each time will influence that.” She nodded again. “Tell the part of the tune that can’t be told on YouTube.”

The evening ended for me with three strong conversations, two by phone and one by e-mail [Paul Revere’s Ride, 20th-century-style]…clarity in one, laughter in the second, and so much heart in the third that I had to just sit there for a while breathing deep and taking it in before I could respond, and then I responded, and then by’mby it was no longer Mardis Gras.

Ash Wednesday dawned gray and chill. The world is a mess, and I have new strength to care.


*from Carl Dennis’ delightful poem “A Maxim”


** for more about Cajun Mardis Gras traditions and their ancient roots, see Pat Mire’s short article              www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/creole_art_dance_chicken.htm

and his film Dance for a Chicken



January 26, 2011 Porch stories
Jan 262011

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.


September 16, 2010 Porch stories
Sep 162010

It started with an immense glowing-orange building on the horizon…which turned out to be the moon. From that moment, it was clear that nothing about this particular trip was going to be ordinary. The morning after the moon, I was reluctant to leave my friends in Portland, so by the time I drove up the Columbia Gorge and crossed into the Palouse, it was sunset.

Land rolls as you come into the Palouse. I’d crest a hill and the sun would come back up—and set again as I went into the dip. I saw sunsets until finally I stopped the car so it could get good and done. Then the highway curved to the north, the hills got taller, and suddenly I was in the middle of abstract art: huge sweeps of black earth, tan wheat, and umber stubble, curving unpredictably on hills close around me in the dusk. There was nothing for the window to be but open. Sounds of quail and hawk carried on the hot wheat-scented breeze.

Since then, I’ve returned to the Palouse as often as I could go, and not nearly often enough. I’ve learned to know people there, and to see changes. Children I’ve met are growing up. Businesses have come and gone. A good dog walked the hot field roads with us for hours one summer and was gone the next—she’d somehow come too close to a combine during harvest.

Sometimes I’ve gone to the Palouse with David, who has a gift for eliciting cougar stories: cougar come into yards, walk the streets at night. (I love the old usage whereby “cougar” and “bear” stand for both singular and plural; it conveys a certain respect we might try applying to our words for human neighbors.) Sometimes I’ve been able to fit a Palouse visit into a Northwest performing schedule. Sometimes, I go for sheer love.

In the Palouse, I let my skin bake to a dry bread-brown—I know it’s not supposed to be good for me, but it evaporates the waterlog (a backlog of water, sort of) I have from my Seattle years, and makes me happy.

Alison Meyer’s beautiful photos convey the broad canvas and the exquisite detail of the Palouse. www.alisonmeyerphotography.com

Columbia County, Evening

where the wheat gets taller
and the names get shorter
	Dusty, Dixie, Rose Gulch
the world listens to the sound of wheat
 	sibilant abundance

after the cut, brown deer dot
	the stubble
		a hawk finds mice
   quail chuckle through

in the hot hush, harvesters climb down
from the air-controlled cab of the combine
    the earth claims them with a rush of sweat

winter wheat, hard wheat, barley
prices change daily in the Co-op window
on Main Street where bulky green machines
are the traffic, and pickups have dogs in the bed

under the sleek tall wall of the grain elevator,
a camp like a cheap motel
for the workers who load the heavy harvest
and rest feet up behind the broken shade

on the rolling edge of the hills of the world, the sky
    grows deeper
     	the land goes from dry to gold
   along the rim, the boldest stroke of lipstick
      on a mouth made of wheat

© 2005 Andrea Hoag

First Light in the Palouse, by Alison Meyer, www.alisonmeyerphotography.com

Golden Blanket, by Alison Meyer, www.alisonmeyerphotography.com

An Act of Faith, by Alison Meyer, www.alisonmeyerphotography.com

Prairie Moon, by Alison Meyer, www.alisonmeyerphotography.com

© 2010–2022 Andrea Hoag .:. www.andreahoag.com site by infoTamers