Women's and Gender Studies video

The College of Charleston marketing folks are making little one-minute videos to highlight different parts of the school. Here's the one they just made for WGS:



I've had a number of jobs in which i worked for tips.  One was table-waiting gigs and the rest were music-playing.  I remember them all--and perhaps in order:  

1)  First was The Thunderbird restaurant in Cookeville, Tennessee, where the wizened old woman who ran the place told me she'd pay me 2.13 an hour (or whatever the standard rate was), but there was no tipping at her restaurant.  She would make up for that no tips policy by feeding me once a night--no steaks.  Also, my pay rate would go up to minimum wage after closing, because that's when i became the dishwasher.   

2)  When i was a teenager we all hung out at Elliston Place in Nashville. Elliston was the hip part of town at the time and home of the Exit Inn, immortalized in Robert Altman's movie Nashville.  It was there i met up with a slightly older, more or less homeless guy named Tony.  I was too green to know whether he was a deadhead or a junkie or maybe even a burgeoning, real street musician, but he knew a few good songs and a little about how to work a tip bucket. We would sit and sing You Can't Always Get What You Want and Wish You Were Here until we had enough money to go into Mosko's and buy some beer.  

I took the skills i learned from Tony and, a few years later, spent some of a summer trying some street musician-ing around the hip parts of Atlanta, New Orleans, Louisville, and on and on.  That's a hard way to go, believe me.  Not only are you singing for tips, but you're also singing for a place to stay at night. If you're charismatic enough, you can usually talk some fun-loving couple or a too-trusting woman to put you up.  More often than not, though, you're stuck with outside, sleeping in the booth at Denny's, or paying for a hotel.  A car is the best way to go in a situation like this, but i was hitching.    

If coming up with a place to stay wasn't hard enough, getting those tips takes a surprising amount of skill.  For starters, it takes charisma.  It wasn't that i wasn't exactly charismatic enough at the time (i wasn't,  but not exactly not charismatic enough).  You also have to be exactly the right kind of mess.  In other words, not too straight, not to sloppy.  You have to look like a smoker, but not like you're just smokin o.p.'s.  You can't be too young (i was too young).  I think it's best to look like you could've been a college professor that has decided to pursue an alternative career, that hasn't showered in quite a while yet is strangely non-stinky.   Finally, it helps if you're willing to do the standards.  I was not.  I didn't want to do You Can't Always Get What You Want.  I wanted to do my songs, or my versions of other people's songs.  That won't get you far.  A street musician is a musical prostitute and very few johns are asking "and what are you in the mood for?"  

3:  Ten years after playing for tips by hitchhiking around the south, i was playing Lower Broad in Nashville.   There i played for an interesting guy named B--- G---.  I'm not sure B knew he was a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator. More accurately, i'm not sure B knew he was an impersonator of an impersonator.  He'd learned his skills from a Memphis cat named Jason D. Williams who claimed to be the illegitimate son on the real Jerry Lee.  Now with Jason D. Williams you found yourself enchanted in his skills, drawn in, entertained, almost a believer in the act. With B, i think the audience wasn't so much entertained as they were violently hypnotized by some sort of Jerry Lee-like vampire. He hooted and hollered!  He stood on his piano and swung from the rafters!  He played everything in the key of C!  In short, although B was weird, he really knew how to work a crowd.  That tip bucket really filled up over the course of the night.  

4:  Lo, these ten years later, i find myself here in Charleston with another tippy gig.  I have a standing engagement on Wednesday and Sundays, for which we are well-paid, but we still have the tip bucket in front of us.  I've collected some good schtick over the years:  "if anyone has any requests, just write it on the back of a twenty dollar bill and bring it up here."  Or if someone is trying to make a request from the audience: "I can't hear you--you're standing too far from the tip bucket."  One of my favorites came from my friend Hugh who responded one night to a crowd of the clever-challenged who kept yelling out Freebird:  That one's gonna cost you twenty dollars.  And it's gonna cost you a whole lot more to get us to stop...  Anyway, given that we don't have to depend on that bucket for pay at the end of the night,  we don't work it too hard, but still it's nice to get a dollar or two for a particularly well-played song or fulfilling a request.  Don't have a dollar and want to hear you're favorite song?  No Problem. We'll we glad to do it if we know it.  

That's why it was interesting the other night when a gentlemen came up to request the song Fields of Athenrye (it's an irish pub).  I spotted this guy and his wife earlier in the evening. They stuck out because the two of them looked like the relatives we all have that are kinda tiny, that still live in the same tiny town they've always lived in,  going to the same vaguely mothball-smelling church they've always gone to, wearing the same polyester suits they're wearing in the photos that line the hallway of their home sweet home.  They were sweet, obviously.   I feel pretty confident that this was one of the first real vacations they'd ever had.  It had just been too expensive before now, but now that he's actually retired...

So he made his way up through the crowd and stood in front of the stage quietly waiting to be noticed.  He asked his soft question about Fields of Athenrye, to which my partner said, of course, we'd be glad to do it. He nodded, and kept looking at us while backing away and simultaneously putting his hand up to the tip jar.  Now, our tip jar is a tall, square, plastic bucket stolen from the kitchen and probably previously used to hold lettuce. It's scratchy, but by no means opaque.  It sits on a bar stool in front of the stage.  The sweet, sky blue, polyester man kept his eyes locked on us as he backed up, backed up, and then raised his arm to the level of the jar.  He was really short.  He made a kind of unclenched claw-like motion a lot like the grocery store stuffed-animal claw machine does when letting go of the coveted zippo lighter box.  I worried that he was going to trip backwards.  

I'm quite sure nothing fell from his hands.  It's a long way to the bottom of that bucket and i didn't see anything float down.  Not a scrunched up dollar bill, not one of those million dollar bills that offer to save your soul we get sometimes, not loose change.  

He didn't have to go to all that trouble.  I don't play music for the tips.  Even on the street, i played music because i love it and it makes people happy.  Money's great--and necessary.  Tips are great and tips validate the job you're doing, but in the end they're just helpful.  It's a different story on waiting tables, believe me, but with music somehow it just always feels like a gift you wanna give away. My partner and i were happy to play Fields of Athenrye and watch the little guy and his wife hold hands and enjoy (perhaps a meaningful) song on their vacation to Charleston.  I wish i could give that guy his tip back.    


Sweet Maybelle

One of my pet peeves as a parent of a baby with Down syndrome is the belief out there in the world that people with Down syndrome are naturally sweet. I encounter this belief in various ways. When I told one potential babysitter that Maybelle has ds, she said, "Oh, my mom works with kids with Down syndrome, and they are so sweet!" In the months after Maybelle was born, Biffle's mom routinely told me how sweet people with ds are. An acquaintance--the mother of a challenging teenager--quipped, "Well, at least she won't be backtalking you when she's thirteen!"

I find this belief troubling for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's reductive. It flattens Maybelle's personality, implying that she'll have one mode or valence, and that will be sweetness. Sometimes this is offered in a kind of compensatory way: "It's too bad that your daughter's fucked up, but at least she'll be sweet!" And to that I say, it's just not true. Of course she'll be backtalking me when she's thirteen--she'll be a teenager with hormones and opinions and a desire to differentiate herself from her family. Perhaps, as my dad has always warned me would happen, she'll start defining herself as an Alex P. Keaton-style conservative. Or perhaps Biffle and I will be too mainstream for her and she'll be playing bass for a punk rock grrrl band. It doesn't matter--the fact is that she will be a complex person in the world with thoughts and feelings all her own. She'll have sweet aspects to her personality and aspects to her personality that will make me want to pull my hair out. And good for her!

The second reason I dislike this belief is that it suggests that sweetness is just a symptom of Down syndrome. As it turns out, Maybelle is a really easy going baby. She's interested in the world around her, she likes going places in the car and stroller, she's invented some fun games (like pulling off glasses and sucking on my lower lip), and she's a good sport about all the therapies she has to do. These are aspects of her personality, some of the things that make her uniquely her. They aren't symptoms of a disease. The belief that all people with Down syndrome are sweet means that Maybelle doesn't get any credit for her personality traits, and I find that wrongheaded and unfair. I think it's one of the more benign manifestations of the ways in which we view special needs people as not fully human.


They're gonna put me in the Movies

When i was a kid i wrote Buck Owens a letter asking that, when he died, could i please have his red, white and blue guitar?  

Buck Owens, in case you don't know, was a country music singer and the co-host of Hee Haw alongside Roy Clark.  Although mostly known for the Hee Haw gig, Owens actually had a very successful music career.  He pioneered an un-Nashville-ified, stripped down style of production that came to be known as The Bakersfield Sound and had 21 number one hits.  If you don't know any of the other stuff i'm talking about here then you probably don't know any of the hits either, with the possible exception of the song Act Naturally, made famous by The Beatles. 

I'm playing my favorite gig at Dunleavey's tonight...well, not quite as favorite as it once was 'cause Roger's gone, but still it's a fun gig...and i wanted to go in and do a couple of Owens tunes.  Act Naturally, of course, is something of a gimme, so i may avoid that one, but Together Again is a fun song to sing and is an easy one for imitating Owen's peculiar arching vocal style and head-dipping affectation.  (If you watch him perform it's almost as if he were searching for the pitch by raising and lowering his head.)  I might do Under Your Spell Again, but the groove seems to be eluding me on that one.  Tiger by the Tail is a fer sure.  

In preparation for this i've been sitting and singing the songs this week and listening and playing along to the actual tracks with Buck.  I've also, as is my wont, looked him up on the internet to find out more about him as a person.  Obviously, you can look him up as easily as me, so i won't tell you anymore than i've already done here, but instead, i want to tell you a couple of quotes--both of them concerning death--i found interesting in a Wikipedia entry about him.  

The first one concerns his long time friend and guitarist Don Rich, whose death Owens evidently never really got over.  (Rich died in a motorcycle accident in 1974 at the age of 32) In the late 1990s Owens said: "He was like a brother, a son and a best friend.  Something I never said before, maybe I couldn't, but I think my music life ended when he did. Oh yeah, I carried on and I existed, but the real joy and love, the real lightning and thunder is gone forever."  

I think that's really touching that a man--especially in macho-laden country music--would say something so tender about another man.  Of course, at the same time,  Owens could hardly deny the terrible effect Rich's death had had on him, since it was nearly twenty-five years before Owens returned to recording.  I don't know the full story of course, but it seems unfortunate that it evidently took him nearly that long to publicly say how he felt about Rich.

Okay that's one.  Here's number two:   

Owens retired from Hee Haw in 1986.  From that point on he lived in his home town of Bakersfield, California and performed at a nightclub he owned there.  On the evening of March 25th, 2006, Owens had dinner at the club, but said he wasn't feeling well and wasn't going to perform that night.  Evidently there was a couple there who'd come all the way from Oregon to hear him play and Buck decided to do the show saying , "if somebody's gonna come all that way, I'm gonna do the show and give it my best shot.  I might groan and squeak, but I'll see what i can do."  He died in his sleep later that night. 

Quote number two comes from Jim Shaw, Owen's longtime spokesperson.  In an interview following Owen's death he told the Los Angeles Times: 
"So, he had his favorite meal, played a show and died in his sleep.  We thought, that's not too bad."  
No. That's not too bad.  

And yes, i'm still waiting on that guitar.  


Billy Pilgrim ain't got nothing on me...

Everyone knows the real opening sentence to Slaughterhouse-Five is the beginning of chapter two:

   Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.  

Now, Billy had a tough row to hoe, what with being unstuck in time, and in war torn Germany and stuck up there with the Trafalmagorians or whatever their names were, but Billy, after all, was a fictional character.  I'm real and i feel pretty unstuck in time myself occasionally.  

Sometimes this is has to do with my own Luddite tendencies.   Sometimes it's about the fact that both of my folks spent some of their formative years sans electricity and indoor plumbing and rode into town on wagons and stuff while i, on the other hand, rode miles and miles everyday in a fancy car to a private school and had 23 televisions and milk that came in a jug--what a gap to span in one generation!  Sometimes it's about the music i play and grew up with. That is the case today...

Imagine my surprise when i got an email inviting me to a "shape-note singing." I followed a link or two and found descriptions:

(Roughly:) Shape note singing was the oldest musical tradition in Northern America. Shape-note singing--also known as fasola--used shapes to denote the different pitches of the musical staff, and thereby made it easier to learn.  Practiced by rural southern churches,  Shape-note singing featured a distinctive four part harmony, sung a cappella, usually with a leader beating time with his arm.  Etc. etc.  

That sure is a lot of past tense verbs!  The email i got encouraged me to come to a shape-note singing happening here in town and help "preserve" this historic method of singing.  Lessons will be provided.

Alright.  Here's why i'm unstuck in time:   i used to sit and watch my Dad beat his arm in time to a capella, four part spirituals with a church of over 900 people.  Now granted, we quit using The Sacred Harp songbook back when i was a kid (much to the elder's chagrin, Daddy chose to go with the more "gospel" filled Stamps-Baxter book which caused people to pat their foot, and thereby "dance," and thereby brought about sin and the aforementioned elder's chagrin) , but still, daddy beat his arm and we sang a cappela four part harmony.  I knew this was a little different from other churches and i knew it to be particularly to locale, but I didn't know this was such a huge novelty.  I certainly didn't know it was part of the distant past.  (I imagine my friends Loraine and Kenneth will find this amusing too, as the three of us used to sit together--a mere 20 years ago--and harmonize beautifully on Sunday nights.)   

I'm glad I got to grow up with that.  I never had to really learn to read music, i can sing harmony with a log if necessary, and it makes me feel good--if not just a little confused--to be a part, evidently, of such a curious old-time tradition.