Travel Log: Budapest/Borders

A few years back when I was still in Europe, people were persuading me not to go to Budapest since we’d heard news that the city was flooded with refugees seeking asylum from war-torn Syria.  But I had roots there and I’d never been as to close to it as I was then.  It was only a 7-hour train ride from Prague, so I decided to go. 

The roots I’m talking about are through my grandfather on my mother’s side.  Though I never met him, I feel like I’ve known him all my life through the stories I’ve heard and through the music–the Hungarian violin and the old gypsy csárdás, which are a type of folk dance native to Hungary made popular long ago by the Romani gypsies.

Whether it takes me to Castilla or Budapest, it seems I’m guided by that music and the unrelenting thirst for movement and experience it seems to inspire. Here I was now, years later, paying homage to my own gypsy blood, riding a train and vagabonding through Europe for close to a month already, finally making my way to a place–much like Castilla–that felt like my homeland in more ways than one.   

When the train pulled in to the station I looked out the window and caught my first sights of the city. I’ll admit, I half-expected to see angry mobs raising all sorts of hell like it was the Bastille at the start of the Revolution.

Yet as I looked out, I saw nothing particularly remarkable. The station was quiet. Nearly empty.  I stepped outside and saw fellow passengers leaving the train, some being greeted by friends and loved ones. I saw a few kids hanging out by the cafe and a few more outside, skateboarding around the courtyard. Whatever chaos had been unfolding in the preceding days and weeks had gone now.

I thought for a moment about the media and it’s tendency toward sensationalism, as it sometimes ignores other news for the sake of news that will keep us interested or drive up their ratings. I do worry whether it might become the boy who cried wolf, if it hasn’t already; as today I consider those who still have trouble grasping the urgency of climate change, or COVID-19 for that matter.

In any case, however things went down here, it appeared the refugees had either moved on or disappeared into the city blending in with everyone else. They were only people with the same essential needs and aspirations as the rest of us. And the more I recognized that, the more I thought about those qualities that truly defined a country.

Was it borders, or something less tangible? Maybe something not quite set in stone but in constant motion, rooted in history but still vulnerable to change by the passage of time, or by the influence of an outside world–one that can never be kept outside for too long.

If the latter was true, then I figured countries were a macrocosm of the individual human experience, which would ultimately make borders something of an illusion.

I hoisted my bag over my shoulder and stepped out onto the streets, the sky turning a bright pink as the sun set behind the hills and day faded into evening. The air had grown cool.  I could hear a violin somewhere not too far away.

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’

 

 

Portraits of American Music: Robert Johnson

Editors Note: In the spirit of honoring Black voices, we here at Quinby & Co. wanted to launch an ongoing series in tribute to the giants of American Music, a strong majority of whom are Black.  Far from being mere adherence to the times or simply doing what is trending or currently in vogue, this is something that is both extremely important to us and something that is distinctly us

These artists are our heroes.  Their music is a gift to our country and to the world.  Furthermore, that music is a big part of who we are.  It has largely informed the culture of this magazine.  Without it, we would not be here.  In honoring these voices, we honor our roots and we honor ourselves. 

Before we continue please consider visiting this link to see how you can help in the fight for universal equality and justice.  Thank You.

This is part of an ongoing series, and though the soon-to-be-mentioned list does follow something of a ranking system, we will be covering each placeholder out of order. 

Thanks and Praises

Ren Michael

Lately I’ve been thinking about the greatest American musicians. A Mount Rushmore of those who’ve shaped the music and shifted the collective consciousness through their work.

On the one hand, I think any sort of ranking system is crude and just plain ol’ silly when it comes to music, or any kind of art. On the other hand, it’s also kind of fun once you’ve surrendered any lingering claim to objectivity.  The exercise is, at the very least, just a display of affection for the music and the people who’ve shaped it.

Why did I focus on American music? Well for one thing–besides the fact that I’m American–in my most humble opinion, American music is simply the greatest composed in the last 100 years.

Our English cousins across the pond would likely agree.  That so-called British Invasion was, after all, an influx of British musicians coming to America and playing rock n’ roll remixed with a heavy dose of delta and Chicago blues.

Anyway, the more I thought about it, the more inclined I was to go ahead and do it. It remains a fun thing to think about, something that made me happy to sketch out during these unusual times.

Alright so here we go. This is my Mt. Rushmore of American musicians.

1. Louis Armstrong
2. Frank Sinatra
3. Robert Johnson
4. Bob Dylan

Choosing those four was actually easier than I thought it’d be. What proved more difficult was deciding between Johnson and Dylan for the number three spot. Both were songwriters as well as musicians, which interestingly enough, applies to neither of the top two. Still, if this is a broader discussion of musicianship as opposed to songwriting, then I think more credit goes to Robert Johnson. His playing, his technical wizardry across the fretboard, continues to influence guitarists all over the world.

Robert Johnson-King of the Delta Blues Singers
King of the Delta Blues Singers by Robert Johnson; Compilation album released posthumously in 1961 by Columbia Records

Yet while this isn’t a discussion about songwriting alone, any artist’s ability to write lyrics ought to play a role in assessing and appreciating their work.  On that score, Johnson again surpasses pretty much every other composer in the blues. For me, the lyrics of ‘Love in Vain’ offer a sample of his poetic depth and economy.

I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand
I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand
It’s hard to tell, so hard to tell, when all your love’s in vain

When the train pulled into the station, I looked her in the eyes
When the train pulled into the station, I looked her in the eyes
I felt so sad, so lonesome, I couldn’t help but cry

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, the red light was my mind

Robert Johnson, ‘Love in Vain’

I’ve always appreciated anyone’s ability to create anything with so little at their disposal, who reaffirm the creed that less is more and showcase the unfailing sophistication of simplicity. I think, in using what ultimately amounts to just six sentences, Johnson achieves that here; as he did in so many of his songs.

He also took a classic setting, one that’s been in more romantic dramas of both film and literature than I can count–a train station where two lovers are saying goodbye–and evokes the core emotional dilemma with subtlety and grace, stripping away melodrama.

As a result, the song stands the test of time.  It could have been written yesterday, or any other day.  And the hero’s conflict is universally relatable.

It’s just one mark of superb artistry, one of many that makes Robert Johnson the father of the blues and by extension, rock n’ roll.

Robert Johnson
One of two known photographs of Robert Johnson

And still, very little is known about him.  Only two photographs remain in which we can even be sure it’s him.  Robert Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911, and started playing in local juke joints at an early age.   According to friends and acquaintances–whose accounts form the majority of what we know about him at all, aside from the music–Johnson demonstrated enthusiasm for playing but only moderate ability and showmanship.

Then he disappeared for about a month before returning doing things on the guitar that nobody had ever seen.  The remarkable change sparked rumors which eventually birthed the now-popular legend that he sold his soul to the devil, down at the Mississippi crossroads, in exchange for mastery of the guitar.

Not long after, he recorded songs over the period of a couple days in San Antonio, songs which today seem painfully few in number, a precious selection that would ultimately cement his legacy.

The recordings reached the ear of John Hammond at Columbia Records in New York.  Eager to book Johnson for an upcoming bill at Carnegie Hall, he sent word down south to find him, only to discover that Johnson had died just weeks before.  The story was that he’d been poisoned by a jealous husband, who’d discovered that Johnson was having an affair with his wife.  He was 27 years old.

Robert Johnson
Second known photo of Robert Johnson

When it comes to the legend surround his life, it’s important to not get carried away particularly regarding the devil at the crossroads.  Myths have and likely always will lend meaning and vibrancy to our lives, often acting as roadmaps in navigating deeper universal truths.

But if we treat them as gospel, then–in this case for example–they diminish the virtues of practice and dedication to craft.  Indulging the image of Johnson being aided by a supernatural force comes at the expense of recognizing a man of natural ability and instinct, who put in the time to become who he wanted to be, or at least get a little closer to it.

What remains the most enduring fact of Robert Johnson’s legacy lies in those recordings.  There is very little production involved.  Listening to them, you get the feeling that he might have just walked in, cut them real quick in the span of a few hours, and then left, going about his business with little to no expectation of what might come of it.

Like many recordings of that early era, you can still hear the grainy, scratchy sounds of what is still a new medium, one through which America, for the first time in it’s history, is beginning to hear itself.  You can hear a young man, playing his music.  Little did he know that one day, his music would change the world.

Have a listen, friends.  We recommend playing it early in the morning, maybe with your first cup of coffee.  Or maybe at night if there’s a full moon or if you’ve got a nice view of the stars.

I often look up when I hear the music, and I consider a life on earth cut short, but a spirit that endures in some form or another like those stars in the far reaches of space, assuming their own rightful place among the grand tapestry of the cosmos.

We hope you join us in raising a glass to a profoundly gifted artist, and a true national treasure.  Robert Johnson.

I Can’t Breathe

By Ren Michael

I’ve been told to believe in equality
but if that’s reality, it’s never been seen
when you see a color before a human being
and feel like a target every step up the street

you ought to stay home, don’t give ‘em the bait
keep away from the windows, they’re no longer safe
if you’re gonna be out, don’t make it too late
how many more years? how long are we gonna wait?

I don’t care if you’re hip.
I don’t care if you’re woke
I’m not looking to be anyone’s token
I’m so full of rage
I could choke with the pain
I’m looking for a friend
who won’t fade away
like smoke in the rain

how many songs, mantras, manifestos will be written?
you don’t have to leave it to the blowin’ of the wind
we might depend on the poets to express what we know
or say it ourselves in the world that we grow

I gaze outside at that rain breaking ground, and
I won’t abide the same recycled old sounds
I won’t abide fear in my own hometown
Am I ready to lay my destiny down?

Well, I’m done with a discourse of making the rounds.

I don’t claim to know what another man feels
but I have had wounds that never did heal
and you’ll never understand the reason we kneel
until you recognize the wounds as real

I want a country, a home, a creed in which I can believe
A flag and anthem that rings true to me
But I’ve gone too long, unheard and unseen
I’m tired of waiting, and I can’t breathe

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.

where to begin? Mozart.

by J.L. Quinby

If you’re just getting into classical music, I think the best place to begin would be with Mozart. 

Why?  Because if you can’t get into Mozart, you probably won’t be into classical music.  Yea maybe that’s a crude way of putting it, but I think it’s true; and it’s a testament to the universality of his music, how much it encompassed all that came before and influenced all that would follow.  

Now the best piece to begin with is “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” and it’s safe to say that most people in the world have heard this charming little piece of music.  No doubt when you play the first movement in the serenade, you’ll probably recognize it.

But hey, it’s good to start off with something familiar, and this is just an introduction after all.  I think that for anyone overwhelmed by classical music, it’s helpful to begin with what you know, and this is as good a piece as any. 

It even feels like a invitation when you listen, like someone welcoming you to a party on some crisp evening by the river, just as the sun sets and the stars begin to appear over the hills. 

I think Mozart understood this well enough.  I can just picture him writing the title after composing it.  “Just a little something I wrote.  In fact, we’ll call it A little night music.”  

Begin with the first piece and let the whole serenade play.   It’s four movements so let them play right one after the other.  Each one is as lilting and lovely as the next.  

By the way, in my humble opinion, the best players of Mozart’s chamber music are Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner.

So without further ado, for your listening pleasure…here’s a little night music. We hope you enjoy.

Issue #2 / Quinby & Co.