The Redemptive Power of Classical Music

I’ve always found music to have healing powers. That’s probably why I play it and why anyone plays it, let alone listens to it. It’s what I think about when I hear classical music in particular. I think about it’s ability to heal, empower, lift people out from the darkness of their times or individual situations and believe in something enough to keep moving forward, embracing imperfection a little better than they did before, while simultaneously striving to improve.

Europe has a long history that embodies that very human struggle, as so much of it is well-documented for us to read about and learn from so that we can walk forward ourselves with a greater understanding of who we are. It’s no surprise then that classical music is so inextricably tied to European history and to a specific region in particular, whose own history proved no less volatile at the time classical music reached its creative height.

I’m talking about Central Europe; and when you consider the fact that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Strauss, Schubert, Chopin, and Liszt were all born in this region—either in Germany, Austria, Poland or Hungary, nearly all of them within the same hundred-year period, you cannot help but reflect on the state of the continent at that point in time, or at the very least, wonder whether there was something in the water. It was a time, after all, that witnessed the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon, among other historical milestones.

Hapsburg Palace - Vienna - Austria - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
Outside the Hapsburg Palace; Vienna, Austria

Anyway, it was inevitable, as I walked down the streets of Vienna on a clear and beautiful morning, that I reflected on that history. I put on my headphones and listened to Mozart’s 41st “Jupiter” Symphony, as the cool morning breeze brushed against my face and I started into town.

For anyone arriving into Vienna for the first time, pick your favorite composer, make a playlist, put on some headphones and press play. Trust me. You owe it to yourself.

I’d just arrived from Budapest very late the previous evening, so I was only getting acquainted with Vienna for the first time that morning. From the way I was strutting, classical music might have seemed to be the last thing I was listening to in favor of Bruno Mars or maybe even, by the looks of me, Stayin’ Alive by the Beegees. But no, I was listening to Mozart.

I was on a music high. Just two nights ago, I’d gone to see my first orchestra play in Budapest at the State Opera House. I knew it then, just as I know it now, that the experience was life-changing. As a musician, it kicked open the door to a universe far greater than any I’d expected to find. The musicians, of course, played in perfect harmony, with illustrious style and profound feeling, and revealed to me in the span of an hour, a world of limitless creative possibility. And yet more than anything, I remembered just how deeply the music was rooted in history, in the collective human experience.

Ludwig Van Beethoven - Beethoven's Apartment - Vienna - Austria - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
Exterior of Beethoven’s apartment building; Vienna, Austria

It was in that spirit that I progressed onward to Vienna, this city that became the uncontested capital of the art form, the seat of the former Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nearly all of the musicians and composers I previously mentioned lived and worked here. In particular, two of my favorite composers who also, arguably, might be the most recognized: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Beethoven’s apartment, where he lived and worked for the better part of ten years and composed some of his most exceptional work, is in the middle of town. The floorboards still creak. The staircase is windy. The building is well-kept but still smells musty enough to make it easy imagining living there at the time, hearing the keys of a piano sounding throughout the stairwell, being played by a master, slowly losing his hearing and yet still earning his living, still finding the will to continue, as ever, perfecting his craft.

Beethoven's Piano - Ludwig Van Beethoven - Vienna - Austria - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
Beethoven’s Piano at his Vienna Apartment; Vienna, Austria

If you walk in, you’ll find the piano still remains, as well innumerable drafts and sketches of compositions, preserved in cases of glass for anyone to come in and read. For me, the experience was surreal.

I knew that Mozart’s former apartment was still in the city and available to see, but I never did get to it. In fact, I figured the more worthwhile experience might actually be in his hometown of Salzburg, stepping into the house where he was born and raised and instructed in music by his father, who himself was a musician.

Salzburg - Austria - Hohensalzburg Fortress - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
View of the south bank and Hohensalzburg Fortress at the top of the hill from the Salzach River; Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg is most definitely aware of its heritage and favorite son, as the several souvenir shops around town will show; along with its “Sound of Music” fame, but that’s for another kind of trip. When you walk inside the old apartment, you’ll find a few trinkets the young Mozart would have played with, not least of which include his own violin, as well as other household items and furniture used by the family in those early years. You’ll step into the room in which he was born. You can read letters exchanged between he and his family during those years where he played for kings, clerics, and noblemen, traveling around the continent before eventually moving to Vienna.

Salzburg at Dusk - Austria - Hohensalzburg Fortress - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
Evening in the city taken from Fortress Hohensalzburg; Salzburg, Austria

When you hear something like that, it might seem especially preposterous even to consider that Mozart and Beethoven, each recognized globally as a genius in their own right, could still have led lives that were in any way similar to our own. But for me, that was actually the greatest souvenir. When you step into a place where someone lived and worked, it has a funny way of bringing you closer to them, rather than farther away.

These men were, ultimately, just people. It’s one very simple yet crucial fact I took away from my time in Central Europe.

Of course, greatness is a matter of perspective. But if we define it simply in finding joy and self-affirmation in doing what you love, while simultaneously creating some component of that feeling for anyone who happens to see or hear what you do, and be moved by it, inspired by it like I was hearing that orchestra play in Budapest, then maybe greatness isn’t quite as inaccessible as we tell ourselves. It takes practice and work, and when you remember that these men in creating their art likely experienced the same doubts we all experience in life, it’s something that brings you closer to both the artist and, if you listen just right, to humanity as well.

*Hey everybody, thanks for reading! Here’s one of our own personally curated playlists of classical music, made for your ultimate listening pleasure. Of course, feel free to reach out to us for any further recommendations. We’re happy to assist. Thanks again and enjoy!

 

 

When I Get Back to Paris

The rain-soaked streets were quiet that evening. I don’t remember whether it was a weekday or weekend or whether it even mattered to anybody. I remember being excited to get to the Notre-Dame Cathedral and walk along the banks of the Seine, across its bridges and back again.

Before I reached the river, I spotted the peak of the Eiffel Tower shimmering in electric light over the rooftops to my left. I was hearing music too. People singing and guitars playing. Flames over stove tops and candlelight in restaurant windows. People were laughing, lovers young and old holding one another, kissing in the still, cold night.

Man I couldn’t believe it, but somehow this city was already turning out to be everything I ever imagined and hoped it would be, which was saying a lot.

Ever since that first evening I’ve found it difficult to write about Paris. It could have something to do with expectations and some inflated idea of what an account of my time there ought to be and sound like. Many have written of it and will continue to do so, and I’m not sure whether I have anything particularly novel to add to the ongoing conversation but I can try.

What surprised me about Paris was that it met and more often surpassed every expectation I originally had of it from years of reading stories in countless books or seeing it in film and other media. Expectations were high enough to make it seem as though disappointment were inevitable, but like so many others I too fell in love with the city. Now during what are hopefully the final days of lockdown and travel restrictions, it sits among the top of my list of places I look forward to seeing again, not too long up the road. So maybe it’s no accident that I’m finally writing this now, years after that first night, since a city like Paris represents the opposite of everything most of us have experienced for the past year.

Where many of us understandably might be at a point where we’re re-evaluating our lives and no longer taking as much for granted, Paris is a place where nothing seems taken for granted and where every detail is savored and art, beauty, fine food and good company are given the priority they deserve.

Take the parks for example. Not only are there plenty of them, but they’re all beautiful and they stay busy with groups of friends gathered there on any given morning, afternoon or evening, sitting atop a picnic blanket enjoying wine, good food and ultimately the added company of everyone else sitting across the lawn of the Champ de Mars or along the hillside below Sacré-Coeur.

Or take the restaurants and how uncommon it is to see one that doesn’t have tables out front with seats positioned side-by-side, facing town instead of each other, so people can enjoy not just the company of the person with whom they’re dining but the feeling of being out in their neighborhood and appreciating where they are and where they live.

Then again, you’re equally apt to see someone sitting alone at one of these cafés having lunch or enjoying a coffee (no laptops) and out in their city in the company of strangers, in the company of neighbors, and in the broadest sense, in the company of fellow citizens and human beings, all participants in this grand experience of life and living.

If such a person can learn to recognize this and to cherish it, they may still be alone in that moment, but I can almost guarantee they’ll feel a lot less lonely.

We’ve heard the phrase work to live, not live to work. I wonder whether to someone in Paris, the phrase might sound silly not because it isn’t true but because it’s so obviously true. For here it’s an understanding that seems second-nature, as obvious as any other common realization made generations ago and now never given a second thought.

In the days ahead, after more than twelve months of lockdowns and social distancing across the world, I’ve got a feeling Paris is about to become a lot less exceptional, at least in this regard.

A man can hope and dream.

Ren Michael - Paris - Saint Michel
Ren Michael at Saint Michel

I write on the backs of napkins

I write on the backs of napkins
I write on scraps of tissue paper
for you ought to not sweat
the fancy jet
the time yet, no
or the old lessons of propriety
don’t stack that shelf
full of fancy volumes, neither
no, don’t overload the head with journals
with their pages crisp and clean
with the ribbons in between
if you’ve got paper
and you got a pen
then write it down
and let it all
flow
and ease the weight
from within your head
you’ll thank me in the end

Cordially Yours,
Your friend,
Ren

 

Originally published // renmichael.com

Mona Lisa Wheels

at my table
it’s a beautiful view
for in the cathedral of my mind, and
out across the highway
I’m seeing
visions
of antiquity
the streets of Paris
the slopes of the Sierra
the state roads of the South
along the banks of the Mississippi
river, and the ol’ Rio
Diabolo

I’ve got a set of wheels
a complex machine
sings from within me
my horse and steed
we take this road together
unmatched, obscene
but sharp and clean
over lands unseen
our spirit redeemed

It’s you and me,
let’s begin again now
and tell the old stories
oh how I love you, my friend
my fortune
my glory

dig it
we’re too big for dreaming

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.

Travel Log: General Sherman

I stopped in one of the last towns to fill up on gas and get supplies–which consisted mainly of sandwich bread, two cans of tuna, some fruit and peanut butter–before starting into the mountains, into Sequoia National Park, where I’d sleep for two nights.

Desert Town - California - Central Valley - Quinby & Co
Small town in the desert, where I got a quick breakfast.

 

After getting to my campground and setting up my tent, I set out to see General Sherman, the largest tree in the world.  I reached the trailhead and made my way into the grove, warm and stuffed with tourists wandering and laughing and taking pictures. I heard babies and toddlers crying and whining, and kids sprinting up and down the trail playing tag and accidentally photobombing the pictures of strangers. I continued and noticed the larger crowds gathering to snap a picture of something in the distance, still obstructed from my view, but something I knew could only be the General Sherman Tree.

It stood mightily at the center, surrounded by excited onlookers who looked like ants by comparison. It was crowded with admirers and yet it seemed strangely alone. A silent sage. A wise man who’d seen generations come and go, had witnessed all the great moments of human history from the very spot upon which it stood. I even pictured some legend of the silver screen growing old though still appearing ageless, encountering a crowd of photographers or tourists taking their picture, but just taking it in stride like a professional. They’re no stranger to the attention, after all. They’ve seen it all before.

General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park - Sequoia - California - National Park - Quinby & Co.
General Sherman Tree, and the ants at its feet; Sequoia National Park, CA

I understood and appreciated the truth that trees, like all other plants on earth, are living breathing organisms. And the more I looked at General Sherman, a tree more than 3,000 years old, the more I appreciated the relevance of these truths concerning all living things on the planet. The more I looked at it, the more I connected with it.

I felt like it was looking way past me, somewhere far beyond where I stood; and that despite its age and wisdom and experience far superior to my own, it too was still something of a lost soul searching and still unsatisfied with everything it had so far understood its purpose to be on this earth. It was the king of these mountains, but it was still subservient to a higher order it didn’t fully understand.

A soft rain fell, more like a mist than a rain. It probably only lasted a minute, but it seemed longer, as if the rain had slowed down time. In that moment the surrounding tourists vanished from sight and left the two of us alone, facing eachother.

The rays of the sun beamed in through the forest, shining down on us both, revealing the tree in all its eternal youth and ancient power, as the reclusive angel, having kept its vigil for centuries way up here in this shadowy grove high up in the mountains.

We were pilgrims, old and young. Angel and man. Man and angel. Guardian angel, maybe. Brothers.  In that moment, we were no longer separate from each other.  We never had been.  There I stood, once again remembering something I seemed to know long ago.

General Sherman - General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park - Sequoia - California - National Park - Quinby & Co.
General Sherman; Sequoia National Park, CA

It was the first time in a long time that I’d felt this way about anything in nature. It wouldn’t be the last. Unbeknownst to me, an entire network existed, scattered far across the wilderness of America, and farther still, across the Atlantic Ocean and out to the far eastern reaches of Europe.  It took the form of people I’d meet, and the many beautiful things I’d see along the way.

It was ocean and sky, woman and man, living and passed on.  With them I felt connected in common cause: that each of us might reach the realization of love and respect for all living things.  An understanding of our ongoing, unfailing connection to one another.

I remembered something from my early days in the church that made more sense to me now than it did before.  As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be.  United in one breath, one beating heart.

Kaweah River - Lodgepole Campground - Sequoia National Park - California - Sequoia - Quinby & Co.
Kaweah River at Lodgepole Campground; Sequoia National Park, CA

The thought didn’t occur to me at the time, standing in the shadow of General Sherman and the mighty sequoia. It only does now, as I recall the story and wonder how it might sound to someone reading this. Truth be told, prior to this experience, I wasn’t much of an outdoors person. I liked to be outside as much as the next guy but I’d never really camped before at all, and I’d never done much hiking beyond the typical neighborhood hikes in and around LA.

I’d never spent much time in the mountains, amongst the trees whispering at night. I’d never lay quiet listening for melodies beside the creek in the early evening. I’d never breathed in the rush of the river beneath the new morning and the slow, rising sun.

Now that was all about to change.

General Sherman - General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park - Sequoia - California - National Park - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
The tree is my brother. Me and General Sherman; Sequoia National Park, CA

Talking About Political Correctness

I used to complain about political correctness, even though I’d never actually met anyone who shamed me or embarrassed me due to my incorrectness. I wonder then whether most of the people who complain about it are just insecure people?  

The growing consensus seems to be that everybody everywhere takes everything so personal all the time, which may yet be true.

For starters, the complaint seems far more warranted, say, with respect to professional comedy where part of what makes a joke funny at all is it’s irreverence, its breach of political correctness. If a comedian were constantly wanting to avoid offending people, that comedian would likely lose inspiration and give up the whole thing. 

Comedy thrives on irreverence. Even so, the best comedians still grasp the basic concept of knowing how to read a room.

When people look at their life and really think about the number of times they’ve been slapped on the wrist by a friend, family member or acquaintance for using the wrong word or making an insensitive remark, is that number actually few and far between, if at all?

The way I see it, political correctness is a fact of life and always has been, no different from any other form of etiquette that will change depending on where you are in the world. The only difference now is that it’s been given a name, and stigmatized in the one sphere of public life where it’s probably essential–politics.   

I wonder then whether people who complain about having their head bitten off for breaching that etiquette, who yearn for some comprehensive, universally agreed upon rubric for what’s ok and what’s not, and who then further expect it to never change, ever again—at least while they’re alive—are simply operating in some other reality; as if anything like that ever existed at all within the long span of human history and the diversity of cultures that make up this planet, let alone the ones that make up this country.   

They’ll mention how it used to be different years ago, how somethings were ok and others were not—as if the ideal sort of history of language and expression is a static one.

People once used words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, words like ‘colored’, just as men once wore stockings and wigs out in public. And yet if you spoke or dressed that way today, you’d look like a jackass. Why? Because things eventually fall out of fashion. And yes, it might be a phenomenon but if we can’t accept it, then we might want to find ourselves another planet.

The complaint ignores the fundamental truth that language changes because people change.  It ignores the fact that larger, free-thinking societies are quite naturally heterogenous.  The bigger they are, the more diverse they will likely become, with each community and sub-community developing their own customs and standards of decorum. Political correctness, then, at the very least seems to represent that basic truth in the matter of how we converse with one another, when each of us comes from a different background and our own sphere of personal experience.  

I’ve noticed that people who travel a lot typically have no problem understanding this, because they’ve spent a good amount of time in communities other than their own. They learned to adapt, and often a part of them even enjoys navigating the complexities of different cultures.

They don’t get upset over the fact that they have to learn a new language, they embrace it as an opportunity. If something changes in the country or community they visit and they have to adapt yet again, they don’t dismiss the people as petty and refuse to budge any further.

They are often driven by an appetite for learning new things, and a wonder before all the intricacies of the world and its many points of view.

They don’t get hung up on the possibility of making a mistake here and there, because they’ve already accepted the high possibility that they will make one sooner or later.

However, that leads to another point of discussion.

Could those who are hip to the changing tides of fashion be more polite about it? Do they have to be such a dick about it? Is being woke, for example, nothing more than a matter of bragging rights, one that ultimately involves shaming all those who are out of the loop?

I’ve never encountered anyone like that, but if and when I do, I don’t think it will surprise me. I used to complain about political correctness because I’d automatically bought into the notion that these types of people were everywhere and running absolutely wild…even though I never met one.

I think it had to do with insecurity. My own fear of making a fool of myself led to a defense mechanism against the enemy I had never actually seen. If these woke people exist–and I do think there are a few out there–then I imagine they are likely motivated by the same fear. Fear of not being hip, fear of looking like an idiot, or just someone out of step with the times. An outsider.

I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with being ignorant. I think the real pity is either burrowing yourself in your ignorance, or over-compensating in the direction of righteousness or enlightenment, all for the sake of never being wrong and being some kind of insider.

Personally I think it’s more fun being a little bit of both, having one foot on the inside and another on the out.

It’s one reason I like to travel.  I like knowing that I can adapt easily enough to changing surroundings, and I know doing that involves a flexibility of perspective, a willingness to listen and an actual openness to being wrong every once in a while.

It’s something I’d forgotten about myself, but I think it’s a good lesson for all of us to remember. It might make life a little more complicated now and then, but with the slightest tweak in perspective, if we can set aside our ego, it might also make life a whole lot more enriching.

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.

Texas Crossroads

I saw windmills in the distance obscured by thick morning fog, looking like ominous giants way out there watching me every step of the way. Dinosaurs on the move, born again and rising out of the Texas swamps.

But then I was still in the plains. This was West Texas, just outside of Amarillo. I had music playing that morning. Elvis Presley. He was crooning one of my favorite songs. Milky White Way.

I stopped at a cafe about 80 miles to the south. The place was nearly deserted except for the lady and gentleman who ran the place. I think they ran it anyway. I think they were a married couple too. I only assumed these things by the way they carried themselves around the shop, and the way they spoke to each other, not in any good or bad way but one that seemed like they’d been doing it for many years.

They asked where I was coming from, and where I was going. I’ve had so many conversations like this over the years, it’s crazy. I don’t mind it though.
I like meeting people from across the country. It makes me feel closer to it in a way that I guess few are able to experience as often. So I count myself lucky.

I’m coming from California, I told them. “I’m headed toward Shreveport.”

“Ah well,” the lady said. “That’s a long way from here. I think you’re gonna need some coffee.”

She smiled then winked at me. The man strode in from the back room to say hello. He rested his hands onto countertop and then took a long look out the window.

“Yes please,” I said to the lady.

She went into the back room to roast me a cup. I asked for a medium since I knew that I did indeed have a longer drive ahead of me. The truth was that I hoped to make it a little farther past Shreveport if I could. The car I was driving was actually a lease, one that needed to be returned in Florida because the back seats were still there. I needed to get back to Florida before the deadline, with enough time in between to get it cleaned and in good shape before I turned it in.

The sooner I arrived, the better; but I didn’t want to push myself to the point of exhaustion either. The last thing I needed to was to get all run down and suddenly become twice as vulnerable to Señor Corona.

The lady came back from the office with a medium cup of coffee. I thanked them both very much and wished them a nice rest of the week.

“You too,” said the man. “Be safe out there and enjoy Shreveport.”

I tipped my hat to him and went out toward the door as two girls walked in, saying hello to me and to the man and woman at the counter. The four of them repeated a different version of the conversation we’d just had. The girls walked over to the coffee table by the window and signed what looked like a visitor’s log, where they likely wrote down their information and where they were traveling from and their email address and all those details.

At the front door I noticed a sign I hadn’t noticed before, or rather about twelve different signs each pointing in different directions from a wooden plank. Each sign had a different town or city, some in the United States and a few others throughout the world, from Amarillo and Santa Fe to Rome, London and Cairo, each with the corresponding number of miles between the city and this coffee shop.

I smiled and walked out the door. I started the car and continued south by southwest, heading toward Shreveport.

 

Issue #4
Q&Co.

 

Petrified Forest National Park

I left California a few days before the lockdown. I reached Joseph City, AZ by nightfall and parked at a Love’s Truck Station on I-40 where an industrial plant loomed about a half-mile up the road with its lights glowing and smoke rising high in the dark of night.

By this time, I was already considering how best to avoid getting sick, since I still had a long drive ahead of me from Arizona to Fort Lauderdale. I’d never been much of a germaphobe, but now here I was wondering how many people I’d have to dodge suddenly in a place that likely saw travelers and truck drivers come and go every day from all corners of the country.

I’d never paid much speculation to these things before, and now I felt a sting of disappointment at how much current circumstances required me having to think twice about every place I might stop, and how many people I might encounter along the way, and whether I should wash my hands again after briefly touching that door handle which might have been grabbed by who knows how many others.

Yea, it sucked.

In Los Angeles, the biggest talking point concerning the virus was the sudden disappearance of toilet paper in all the grocery stores around town. When I left, businesses still hadn’t shut down but the reality was beginning to sink in, at least for me. Maybe it had something to do with the police helicopter that had been flying over my neighborhood everyday for the past week.

California Desert at Sundown, on State Road 95 outside the Chemehuevi Mountains.

The next morning I grabbed coffee at the Love’s station. It was delicious. I liked it so much I even bought a souvenir thermos. Of all the truck stops across America, Love’s has come to be my favorite. Maybe it’s the name. Maybe it’s the logo. Or maybe I just bought the thermos as a way to settle down and lighten up. Sure enough, during each of the four nights I was on the road, I’d stay at a Love’s Truck Station.  It provided a reassuring familiarity I’d long come to appreciate over the years on the road; and now as things seemed to be getting more serious everywhere, I appreciated that familiarity even more in everything from the country music and tacky t-shirts to the coffee machines and souvenir shot glasses.

To my added satisfaction, as I set out that next morning I saw another familiar face, a National Park that I’d been meaning to visit for a few years now and that I’d bypassed every time I drove down I-40, because I hadn’t had the time or it was too late at night, or some reason or another. It was Petrified Forest National Park.

Now that it was early in the morning and I wasn’t in any particular rush to get anywhere, and probably because I needed the distraction, I decided that now was as a good a time as any to finally see what it was all about.

A quiet morning outside the park entrance; Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

National Parks have always served as an escape for Americans looking to reset and decompress, an escape from the mundane, or from the stress and congestion of city life.  Yet in the coming weeks, they’d receive a new influx of visitors looking to escape the coronavirus.  So many, in fact, that the parks themselves would become congested. 

As I read now of park officials at Grand Canyon currently submitting requests to close down as they field up to 600 visitors in a single day, visitors with whom they undoubtedly come into close contact, I think back to just two weeks ago when I arrived at Petrified Forest. 

I support that request by the way, though I’ll admit, I’m happy I got to visit beforehand when everything seemed totally normal, to the point that you’d never know anything was going on in the rest of the world. 

‘The Tepees’; Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

I parked at the visitor center and watched a quick film about the park and it’s indigenous history.  It felt good to do something normal like that.  To go in and simply look at souvenirs, or get my park stamps and grab a map like I’d typically do.  The rangers were in good spirits and so were the visitors; though again, just like at the Love’s Station, I was suddenly aware of how close I stood next to everybody and felt the same sting of disappointment at the fact.

Then I left the station and set out on the road and into the park, driving alongside the cliffs overlooking the Painted Desert, an endless vista of pink and red rock leading out to the horizon.  The weather was great.  The sky was still a bit overcast, but the sunlight peeking through the clouds felt wonderful on my face.  I could have easily stayed out there all day.    

Along the way I stopped at the Painted Desert Inn and thought about all the people of decades past who’d stayed there and stood out on that same balcony to take in the view of the Arizona badlands. 

The landscape did remind me of the more famous Dakota Badlands some 1,000 miles to the northeast, which I’d visited nearly two years before.  Still while the shades of the green, grey and brown were the dominant colors of that region, here everything was red and pink, and so I might’ve been more inclined to think of Mars, some vast frozen tundra out in space, were it not for that glorious morning breeze and life-giving sunlight. 

Painted Desert; Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

I closed my eyes like I’d done a million times over the last few years in places like Yellowstone and the Everglades, in New Mexico and the Swiss Alps, along the river Danube or the Mississippi, and on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.  I closed my eyes and stood beneath the sun, allowing my mind to quiet with the surrounding landscape. 

As difficult as things are getting lately, I’m grateful that I still have the ability to do this, where I can at least step outside my door and breathe in the air provided to us everyday. 

With enough patience, I feel like I can get back to anyone of those places whenever I need.  I thought a lot about this, that day at Petrified Forest, and considered the likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to visit again for a while in the days and weeks to come.  I opened my eyes and looked out over the Painted Desert.  Indeed there was nothing petrified about it.  It was in fact teeming with life.

I’d get back there soon.  In the meantime, it would still be here.  Living and breathing under the same sun, beneath the same stars and moon.  And when I consider that, even today, it doesn’t feel too far at all.  Just like every other place I know and love.

Issue #3
Q&Co.