Travel Log: Sundown at Yosemite

I spent the evening down on the valley floor by the Merced River and Tenaya Creek, past the lingering tourists snapping pictures in the last remaining hours of daylight.

I can’t say what I was looking for–maybe something extraordinary, since extraordinary was all that I had seen so far, and I had little indication that anything about that would change. 

The sun faded from view, leaving the sky cast in a pink-purple glow.  The air had cooled quickly, and I heard the sounds of the river somewhere through the trees. 

I approached a small tunnel where footprints led through to the other end.  It was actually more like a pile of rocks, and it formed what looked like a cave at first glance. Maybe it was my imagination running away with me, or some childlike adventurous impulse breaking free that I made no effort to resist. 

Yosemite Valley - Mirror Lake Trail - National Parks - Yosemite National Park - Yosemite - Jude Moonlight - Tenaya Creek - Quinby & Co.
On the Mirror Lake Trail heading toward Tenaya Creek; Yosemite National Park, CA

I crawled through it like some lost boy in his bedroom fort, made from chairs and bedsheets.  Only this was the genuine article, made from boulders and chunks of earth that had probably fallen many years ago.

I reached the other end and heard the sounds of the river growing louder.  I could see it flowing in between the trees.  I glanced up and noticed two birds flying playfully overhead.  I followed them to the water, flowing gently northeast.  I sat there on the bank, quietly upon the rocks and I listened.  The ‘river’ was actually Tenaya Creek, which had broken off from the Merced River at Curry Village. 

I sat there for a while and wrote about the creek whispering secrets, dispatches from the rest of the world with news on where we were all going from here.  The river seemed to know it all.  The river, swift and wise, the great shaper of mountainsides and treacherous canyons–shaping even the grandest and most mammoth caves in America. 

Yosemite Valley - National Parks - Yosemite National Park - Yosemite - Jude Moonlight - Tenaya Creek - Quinby & Co.
Tenaya Creek; Yosemite National Park, CA

The last rays of daylight had gone down as I left the valley and made my way out the west entrance of the park toward El Portal.  I camped for the night at an RV park, perched on a cliff overlooking the Merced River. 

This site was a cool alternative to camping in the park where campsites had been booked for months in advance.  I slept in something that wasn’t quite a tent, but not quite a cabin either.  It was a wide canvas tent the size of a small bedroom, equipped with a bed and nightstand and even a ceiling fan.  I guess it could qualify as ‘glamping,’ though I hadn’t heard that word at the time.  It didn’t have an AC or heating system, but I didn’t need one.  In those first days of August, the air outside was perfect.    

I enjoyed all the sounds of nature I would have enjoyed in a conventional tent, as well as most of the comforts of a cabin.  And I fell asleep to the sound of the river rushing below and the many creatures of the night, unknown and unseen. 

I slept like a rock.

Portraits of American Music: Bob Dylan

Outside of the various nightclubs in which he’d played throughout the south, few had heard of Robert Johnson in those immediate years following his death.  But that began to change in 1961.   

John Hammond was the head of Columbia Records—the same man who had tried to book Johnson years ago for a bill at Carnegie Hall, only to discover that he’d died just weeks before.  By this time, Hammond already had a few feathers in his cap, having signed the likes of Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to the label.  Now he was overseeing the production and release of King of the Delta Blues Singers, the compilation album featuring those original songs which Johnson recorded inauspiciously some 25 years ago in San Antonio. 

The album would prove to be a monumental influence in the oncoming wave of rock and roll set to sweep the cultural landscape in a couple years. 

One of the first people to hear the record before it was even released was a young artist Hammond had just signed to the label, an unassuming folk-singer mostly known in the Greenwich Village folk revival scene.  

People knew him as the kid who sang Woody Guthrie songs, who talked and dressed like Guthrie, but whatever else John Hammond saw in Bob Dylan seems a bit of a mystery since there were other artists in the neighborhood arguably making a bigger splash at the time. 

Nobody had any real indication that he wrote his own songs.  Not John Hammond nor perhaps even Dylan himself. 

His debut album, Bob Dylan, featured mostly traditional songs—some obscure, others well-known—songs that had been covered and performed various times in the clubs and cafes of Greenwich Village, not least of which included House of the Rising Sun, soon to be cemented as a classic by Eric Burdon and the Animals a few years later. 

Even so, the album made very few waves.  Personnel at Columbia were already regarding the kid as Hammond’s folly, as though he were some pet project everybody could overlook in light of Hammond’s already proven success. 

When he listened to his album for the first time, Dylan later confessed, he was highly disturbed and he immediately felt the need to go out and make another record. 

By this time, Hammond had given Dylan a preview of the Robert Johnson album set to be released by Columbia.  And when Dylan heard it, like so many of his contemporaries to follow, he was greatly affected by the sound.  Yet perhaps unlike his contemporaries—especially those blues-obsessed musicians gearing up in the U.K. who were more entranced by Johnson’s guitar playing—Dylan found that he was particularly drawn to the lyrics. 

He describes it best in his 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume One:

I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction—themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease.  I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them.  I thought about Johnson a lot, wondered who his audience could have been.  It’s hard to imagine sharecroppers or plantation field hands at hop joints, relating to songs like these.  You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future.


-Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume 1 (2004)

Just how much hearing Johnson’s music influenced the making of Dylan’s next record, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, can only be guessed; but given Dylan’s own words on hearing the music, it seems at the very least that it might have inspired him to start heading in a more authentic and personal direction, that realizing Johnson’s profound originality might have further encouraged him to veer from covering the old folk standards and start getting serious about finding his own voice.

If so, then authenticity began with staying true to the times in which he lived, when the Cold War was at its peak and the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing.

Unlike his previous record, Freewheelin’ would mostly feature original songs, songs that would quickly establish Dylan as an early voice in the underground folk revival now spreading across America as part of the emerging 1960s counter-culture.

Blowin In the Wind, the album’s anthemic first track would prove to be one of the most celebrated and recognizable songs in Dylan repertoire, and the number of times it was covered in the ensuing months and years would bear testimony to its cultural and social relevance.

Bob Dylan - Columbia Records - New York City - 1963 - The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan in the Studio, New York City 1963 by Don Hunstein, © Don Hunstein

Now, for those readers looking to take their first dive into Dylan’s work, it’s difficult to pinpoint any one song or album to start, but I think one place that’s as good as any is The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, because in many ways, it’s his true first album.  Though his previous self-titled debut did feature two original songs including Song for Woody, a tribute to his hero Woody Guthrie; I think Freewheelin’ marks the beginning of Dylan making his own path, taking those real first steps to becoming the artist he was looking to be.

Now of course, as is the case with Robert Johnson and so many of the artists we’ll be talking about in this series, it’s impossible to capture the scope and influence in an artist’s work in one article, so you can be sure we’ll be revisiting Dylan’s music in many more articles to come.

But in closing, for now, and in honor of these two giants of American Music and on that subtle art of conveying strong emotion and images through seemingly subtle means, here’s the opening verse of one of Dylan’s early songs off Freewheelin’, called Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.

It’s one of my personal favorites, and one in which I think the spirit of Robert Johnson looms quite heavily.

Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If you don’t know by now
Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It’ll never do anyhow
When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window and I’ll be gone
You’re the reason I’ll be travelin’ on
But don’t think twice it’s all right.

Bob Dylan, ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right’

 

 

Breakfast in Vicksburg

I reached Vicksburg late in the morning, after four days on the road.  It’s known as a historical site of the Civil War, but I knew it as Willie Dixon’s hometown.

The cafe stood on the north end of Washington Street. I sat down and ordered a cup of coffee, a toasted bagel with cream cheese and a slice of tomato.  That’s my favorite breakfast, and that morning I found myself looking for anything familiar, anything that felt close to home. I even missed the morning paper, but then I figured I was probably better without it, at least for today.

During that point in March, we weren’t in full quarantine mode and businesses like this one were still allowing people to come in. About five or six were sitting inside when I arrived, a few gathered around a coffee table in cozy armchairs chatting like any ordinary day, which was fine by me. It was nice to see a little civilization again, especially when I considered that it might be one of the last times for a while.

I don’t think any of us had come to accept how dire things would get in just a few more days. At this point, the consensus was just wash your hands and eat well. Keep the immune system up. Social distancing hadn’t become a thing yet.

Still the feeling of not knowing exactly when I’d be back hit me a little harder than usual, and not just because of everything happening in the rest of the world.

This wasn’t my first visit to Mississippi, nor the second or third. I’d always driven through from California to Florida or vice-versa over the years. One time, only a few years prior, I’d stopped along Highway 61 en route to New Orleans from Nashville and slept just a few steps away from the bank of the river. That was in Rosedale, maybe a hundred miles to the north of Vicksburg.

I wrote a little in my notebook, then finished breakfast and walked upstairs toward what they called the Attic. I heard the faint sound of a piano playing, growing louder as I reached the second floor.

I stood in a vast gallery of vibrant colors, rare antiques and a few old recycled instruments; local art seemingly paying tribute to the town and it’s rich musical heritage.

The man who ran the place sat in his chair and welcomed me in, reminding me to let him know if I had any questions. He sat beside a record player. The vinyl jacket placed beside it. The sounds of the piano came in only a little scratchy, but still clear. Arthur Rubinstein playing Beethoven sonatas.

Much like central Europe, where so many well-known composers lived and worked, Mississippi was the home-state for an equal number of extraordinary American musicians in the early twentieth century. And so like with central Europe, its tempting to wonder at first whether there was something in the water at that time in history.

Here they were now, looking out at me through canvas portraits or old black and white photographs. Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, B.B. King, Albert King, Willie Dixon, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White, Skip James, and John Lee Hooker. All born in Mississippi.

I hadn’t visited many places in the state like this, places that so visibly recognized it’s history. Maybe that’s because there weren’t too many to begin with, at least no big avenues or bustling boulevards remotely close to the iconic and tourist-jammed sites like Broadway in Nashville, Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

In Mississippi, there were grave sites. A few hidden plaques. A famed highway. Crossroads. And then, there was the river.

I left the gallery and made my way back outside. I turned off Washington and down Grove Street, along the slope that dips sharply down toward the river. Docked on it’s bank stood an old steamboat gleaming in white beneath the afternoon sun. It was empty and left unattended. It looked almost abandoned like a ghost ship that wasn’t supposed to be there, hiding in plain sight. There it lie, some quiet reminder of days long past.

Except they didn’t feel past at all. For me, the past was never really past. I looked out over the river which always has a funny way of reminding me of these things, typically when I need the reminder most. Maybe that’s why I always come back to it. Maybe there is something in the water.

Here the connection between the land and the music is far easier to trace than it might be in the case of Central Europe. For one thing, the origins of the blues lead back to life on the plantation before the Civil War, to the slaves who worked from sunup to sundown, who sang as a way of not simply passing time, but as a critical means of holding onto the humanity they might have otherwise lost.

They had no formal musical instruction, no understanding of theory at all. Still the music sounded as beautiful as anything ever composed under hours of intense professional or academic scrutiny, something that underscores the nature of creativity and how much is informed by human experience over theory, how it may come as much from sheer necessity as intention, if not more so.

The style, as well as the songs themselves were passed on from the slaves to their descendants, through Reconstruction and Jim Crow south, and with every generation the songs, though thematically growing more varied and complex, remained as true to the basic form as it does today.

Though its themes never avoid the harsh realities of life, such as the pain of body or spirit, poverty, jealousy or death itself, the blues frequently acknowledges love, redemption, friendship, travel and hope. Even in the case of those songs of loss–and there are many of them–the very act of singing the songs was and remains an act of survival, a means of recognizing what must be recognized before it can be overcome.

When the train left the station, it had two lights on behind
When the train left the station, it had two lights on behind
The blue light was my baby, and the red light was my mind
-Robert Johnson, “Love In Vain”

Any form of expression that acknowledges life with such a wide and sober lens is bound to stand the test of time, and rightfully so, because it’s language is universal and deeply relatable, it’s music as raw and recognizable as the forces of nature and the land itself.

For me, no other music achieves this as completely as the blues. It is more honest and unique to the history of America than anything else I know, so timeless that it feels elemental. When I hear it, I hear those who’ve come before and those who will follow. I hear the river. I can feel it flowing as gently as it has done for millennia, and will continue to do for generations to come.

It’s significance is made all the more poignant by the fact of its origin, that it was created by the same men and women who built so much of the country as we know it today, who literally laid down it’s foundations.

It’s part of a long tradition intimately tied to the history and character of this land. It is American Music. I remember that every time I play it, and every time I sing.

Somehow, through the strange and uncertain times that lie ahead, it would would help anchor me in a way few things ever could. And though some time has passed since that quiet afternoon by the river, I’m still there.

I never really left.

Issue #4
Q&Co.

P.S. Here’s a playlist
we made for your listening pleasure
Our selection of personal favorites in the blues
We hope you enjoy.