~ News, announcements, events, and ruminations about my books, including Slant of Light, This Old World, The Language of Trees, and Scattered Lights, and about creativity, fiction, Missouri, the Ozarks, and anything else that strikes my fancy
Am I excited? Yes! I’ve got some bookstore appearances already set up and am hoping to set up more. Also intending to get some library appearances set up too, in the near future I hope. The book is set for a September 26 release.
I was in my mid-teens when I bought this album, a rare occurrence for me as we kids didn’t have much disposable money those days and my parents reserved their gift-buying for Christmas, for the most part. Like most Americans at the time, I had heard Gordon Lightfoot’s music first through covers, the Peter, Paul, and Mary cover of “Early Morning Rain” in my case. Others probably heard the Marty Robbins cover of “Ribbon of Darkness” first. In any event, this was the album I bought, and I played it over and over again. I can safely say it changed my life.
I bought a twelve-string guitar. I adopted the soulful troubadour persona that I inhabited for a few years. I started performing in coffeehouses and open mics.
But more importantly, I came to appreciate the art of storytelling and lyricism that Gordon Lightfoot’s songs exemplified. Even a simple song like “Saturday Clothes” had a twist. And some of his greatest songs are the most mysterious. “If You Could Read My Mind” is a fantastically complex piece of thinking, packaged up as a three-minute heartbreak song.
I saw Gordon Lightfoot first at the Mississippi River Festival in Edwardsville, I think, and at least three more times over the years. The last time was in Nashville, in 2009 or 2010. His voice was pretty much shot by then, but he was a real trouper. He knew what the audience wanted, and he stood up there and delivered it, a full show, even though you could tell it was hard for him.
The first time I saw him he just had two sidemen, a bass player and a lead guitarist, and in later shows he added a drummer, and that was about it. The point of the show was not to overwhelm you with the effort, but to lay out the songs clean and clear. Often there would be a momentary hush after a song was finished as the audience took in the lyrics. Then applause after that beat. I always thought that pause was one of the greatest tributes you could give a songwriter.
People throughout the crowd would be hollering out their favorite song titles in hopes that he would sing it, and sometimes he did. What was interesting about that was that over the course of the night, somebody would holler out just about every single song in his output. The commercial hits, the obscure meditations, the throwaways. Every song had somebody who made it their favorite.
And the narrating voices, the different points of view! That was one of his great strengths. The cynical rake of “I’m Not Saying” and “For Loving Me,” the dreamy romantic of “Beautiful” and “Softly,” the tortured slave to sick love of “Sundown” — every voice was convincing. That was one of the great lessons I learned from Lightfoot, that you didn’t have to speak in the straightforward first-person singular all the time. And that was the gift that set him apart from so many other singer-songwriters of the time.
So this morning as I learn of Gordon Lightfoot’s death at the age of 84, and as I look back over his enormous catalog of songs, the only proper thing to say is “Thank you.”
Today is National Independent Bookstore Day, and regardless of what you may think about made-up days to fill up your events calendar, independent bookstores are definitely something to celebrate. I can hardly begin to tell you how many local bookstores I’ve had wonderful experiences with, both selling books and buying them. Here’s a picture of my most recent visit, to Enchanted Books in Quincy, Illinois.
But it must be admitted, some folks like to support their local small businesses in the abstract, while not supporting them in practice. No judgment here, but let’s remember that local small businesses, bookstores included, succeed in the same way that all businesses do. By making money.
So if you want to be a friend to your local bookstore year-round, and not just on the last Saturday in April, here are a couple of ideas.
If you love the convenience of online shopping, hunt for the books you want on bookshop.org. You get to pick a local bookstore to support, and you can still shop in your pajamas. Not that I haven’t seen some people shopping in their pajamas at the local store anyway.
Audiobook lover? Then bookmark libro.fm. Same deal: online convenience, local support.
Independent bookstores are responding to marketplace trends in their home communities, and they love to serve local customers. So stop by, hang out, get some recommendations, sit in the comfy chairs, and take in the atmosphere. Treat yo’ self, as the saying goes.
I wrote about Mina Sauk Falls a long time ago, but recently had the opportunity to revisit that beautiful landscape with my friend Randy Hyman. It was a memorable experience to hike to the falls, something I hadn’t done in perhaps three or four decades.
Although the falls are now in the state park system, part of Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, they’re still pretty hard to get to. I had forgotten just how rugged the trail down to the falls is (or perhaps it didn’t seem so rugged when I was in my twenties), But we made it down and back without incident, enjoying the immense profusion of spring wildflowers along the way.
Mina Sauk Falls is notoriously hard to photograph, first because it descends in a series of small cascades at first, before it reaches the main falls, and second because photographing the main falls from below requires you to scramble down a perilous heap of boulders to reach a vantage point from which you can see them. I didn’t make that effort, but here’s a photo by Skye Marthaler, available from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license:
Falling water draws us, whether it’s the massive flow of one of the world’s great waterfalls or a wet-weather tumble like this one. I think their appeal comes from two things. First, there’s the elemental quality, water flowing over rock. How much simpler does it get? All that force, all that power, laid out before us in a simple display of nature’s magnitude. Then there’s the timelessness of it. Watching a waterfall you sense that other people from other centuries, other millennia, have likely done the same thing. That may be why waterfalls tend to attract mythology so strongly. Leland and Crystal Payton have written an entire book, Lover’s Leap Legends, about how practically every high place in North America has generated a story about an Indian maiden leaping to her death, sometimes in mourning over her lost love and sometimes accompanied by him, and how all of these stories are essentially fictional. Mina Sauk Falls is no exception to that tendency, with an early ethnologist gently describing the existence of Mina Sauk and the origin of the fall’s name as a “romancer’s creation.”
But even if you’re not tempted to jump off the overlook, you have to admit that it offers some magnificent views. Even if you can’t see the entire waterfall in one easy sweep, you can see for miles down the valley of Taum Sauk Creek, with a glimpse of the Proffitt Mountain reservoir from a few points along the way.
Thanks to a recent blog post on the Iron County Historical Society’s webpage, I’ve been reading the Federal Writers’ Project’s compilation of Missouri slave narratives, available through the Library of Congress, for the last couple of days. I’ve referred to this collection before, but reading them again is always supremely worthwhile.
With all the current hullaballoo going on in the Missouri Legislature about what can and can’t be taught in our schools, I’d like to recommend that all legislators be required to read these narratives, start to finish, and then write an analytical summary about what they teach us about Missouri’s history. No cheating by making your staff do it! Frankly, I think they should be required reading in the high schools.
Merry Christmas, everyone. I’ve been thinking about storylines lately. The writers of the Gospels were determined to cast Jesus into a particular story structure, one that meant a lot to them but which today, in all likelihood, doesn’t resonate nearly as much. That’s the story of the Messiah, a rather enigmatic character who shows up now and again in the Hebrew Bible. The idea of the Messiah (Greek translation: Christos) for first-century Jews is that he was a future king, who would be sent by God to set things right and restore the lost Jewish kingdom. For a nation that had endured oppression, periodic religious persecution, and mass relocation, the Messiah was a significant figure. The arrival of the Messiah would be a sign that despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the Jews had not been abandoned by their God.
So the Gospel writers went to great lengths to make the case that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. They retrofitted an elaborate genealogy to claim that he was a descendant of King David. They borrowed tidbits from other religious traditions to heighten the mythological significance of Jesus’ birth story: a big star that suddenly appears. Celestial beings – angels – showing up and making announcements. Religious leaders from far away who come to pay homage. In other words, it was very important to them to show that Christmas – the birth of Jesus – was the fulfillment of an ancient promise.
Nowadays, we don’t think much about the concept of a Messiah. Apart from Christmas, the most frequent use of the word is in the phrase “Messiah complex,” describing somebody who is under the delusion that they are specially called to solve everyone’s problems and who think they have all the answers. Frankly, we don’t need any more Messiahs these days. We have plenty.
But we do need something at this moment of the calendar. Many people feel deep sadness at this time of year. I think of one of the great nineteenth-century Christmas songs, with words from the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It starts out with the sweet sound of the bells, but by the third verse of the song (sixth verse of the poem) the speaker has reached the realization that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on Earth, goodwill to men.” Only at the very end does the speaker achieve a measure of hope that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” The message of the poem is essentially this: Things are a mess but they will get better. The poem’s origin in the heart of the Civil War, made clear in the verses that are omitted from the Christmas song, helps to explain why its message of comfort is so muted.
Many of the modern Christmas classics have that same theme. Things are a mess but they will get better. The older songs celebrate the triumphant arrival of the King of Kings, Lord of Lords. But nowadays we have a more modest aim. As the Merle Haggard song puts it, “If we make it through December, everything’s gonna be all right.” Think of the beautiful but melancholy 1943 song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: “Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Believe it or not, this version of the song was actually lightened up from the original version the songwriter presented to Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland for Meet Me in St. Louis. They found it too depressing, with lines like “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past.” How’s that for some good tidings?
At this time of year, we bring lights into our houses and out on our lawns. There was a news story on television recently about a homeowner in my town who had lit her house so brilliantly that it was showing up in satellite images. We search for gifts for our loved ones, just the right thing that will show them how much we love them. We find the people and organizations that are doing good, and we help them out. The Food Bank, the homeless shelter, the refugee center. All of this comes from a place of longing and of hope. In the absence of a messiah sent by God and foretold by prophets, we step in. We are not here to restore the Kingdom of Israel. We are not here to fulfill a promise. We are here to make a promise. And that promise is: I will look out for you. I will care for you. We will bind ourselves together in large ways and small ways. Things are a mess right now, but I will work to make them better. The promise is not from a distant and historic God to us, but from ourselves to ourselves, and we make it now and looking into the future.
This is from Roger Deakin’s book Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees:
“It was the eve of Oak Apple Day, and the annual reassertion of rights to collect wood in the Royal Forest of Grovely by the villagers of Great Wishford in accordance with a charter granted to them in 1603. The charter affirms that their rights to the wood have existed ‘since time immemorial,’ usually taken to mean since well before Domesday. In all seriousness, it requires the whole village to ‘go in a dance’ to Salisbury Cathedral six miles away once a year in May and claim their rights and customs in the forest with ‘The Shout’ of the words ‘Grovely! Grovely! Grovely! and all Grovely! Unity is Strength!”
I’ll admit that my first reaction to this story was Is-he-pulling-my-leg incredulity. But a quick bit of research soon told me that Oak Apple Day is a real thing. The Great Wishford celebration is unique among the few English celebrations of Oak Apple Day in that it dates back farther, but a few other towns in the U.K. also observe it. If you’d like to hear more about the Great Wishford celebration, here’s a video.
I love a small town celebration and have attended many – some by accident and some by intention. Our American festivals often focus around a local product (the various Apple and Blueberry and Salmon festivals, etc.), or something more generic, like the “Freedom Fest” in my hometown of Annapolis that celebrates, well, freedom I guess. Hey, any excuse for a parade. But few of them could claim anything near the heritage of that festival. According to Deakin, there have been recorded conflicts between the villagers and the local nobility over their right to collect wood in the forest since 1292. So the charter of 1603 sought to lay to rest a dispute that had been going on for more than three hundred years already.
Ancient rituals with obscure origins. Our minds turn to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” but perhaps instead we should contemplate the power of the past, the hold it has on our imaginations. Every generation imagines itself to be facing the world in a new way, and to some extent that is always true. But every generation is also the inheritor of its predecessors’ struggles and triumphs, and feels the pull of the old.
And in case you’re wondering what an “oak apple” is, it’s the colloquial name for an oak gall, the hard round protuberance that grows on an oak branch or leaf when a gall wasp lays its eggs there. So it has nothing to do with actual apples at all.
But my favorite venue is a library. Whenever I speak at a library, I always come away having learned something new myself. Library-goers are a varied and curious bunch, knowledgeable about many things, and eager to share that knowledge.
So I’m excited to rejoin the Missouri Humanities Council and State Historical Society of Missouri’s joint project, the Missouri Speakers Bureau. This project provide a wide range of speakers to libraries and other nonprofit organizations around the state: civic groups, historical societies, you name it. And if your organization is located in a rural area (defined as any county outside Jackson, Greene, Boone, or St. Louis City/County), the speakers are totally free! As a kid who grew up in small-town libraries myself, I love the experience of visiting a library and meeting new people who have a love of learning and history similar to mine.
The link to my page on the Speakers Bureau website is here. I’ve put together a presentation on Missouri utopian communities that should be interesting, and am adding new material to the presentation all the time. If you have a group that needs a speaker, get in touch!
Folk music fans will likely remember “The Farmer Is the Man,” the rather scathing song from the 1880s that described the plight of the farmer:
The farmer is the man, the farmer is the man,
Lives on credit till the fall;
Then they take him by the hand and they lead him from the land,
And the middle man’s the one that gets it all.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. Today’s headline: “State lawmakers approve $40M in tax breaks for farmers.” In the story: “The measure includes tax credits to benefit companies involved in meat processing, biodiesel, ethanol fuel and urban farms. It also expands government loan programs for farmers.”
So the headline might better have read, “State lawmakers approve benefits for lenders and agribusiness corporations.” Whether actual farmers get any of those benefits is anyone’s guess. And by directing the tax breaks to certain industries, such as biodiesel and ethanol, the state is supporting a monoculture model of agriculture based on massive investment in corn acreage, intensive fertilizing and irrigation, and industrial scale of operation that turns the act of farming into something much closer to factory work.
The Missouri Library Association is the umbrella organization of all the libraries in Missouri – public, private, academic, and otherwise. They’re a great organization, and they speak out strongly in favor of information access and freedom of expression.
They also give out two Missouri Author Awards each year, one for fiction and one for nonfiction. This year, I was honored to have Scattered Lights win the fiction award.
Receiving this award from the MLA is extra special for me. For one thing, the books that have won it before are really terrific, and I’m honored to be in their company.
But additionally, libraries have always been special places to me, even sacred. My mom worked in the Fredericktown library, and when we moved to Annapolis, she was instrumental in establishing the Annapolis branch library, which today is named in her honor. At the dedication of the newest building that houses the Annapolis branch, my brother and sister-in-law had buttons made celebrating Mom’s commitment, and that button is what you see on my lapel. Here’s a closeup.
What she saw in libraries was their immense potential for improving people’s lives, without regard to wealth or background. When you walk into a library, you are equal to everyone else there, and the knowledge of all the planet is available to you. She loved to cultivate that curiosity. Whenever a kid came into the library, she made careful note of what that kid was interested in. And the next time that kid came in, there would be a new book pulled from the revolving collection, just waiting, to satisfy that curiosity and perhaps nudge it along a little.
A library represents the potential in us all. The existence of free public libraries is one of the great advancements of civilization. So receiving an award from the state library association is, well, pretty much the best thing I can imagine.
I’d like to comment particularly on my co-winner this year, The Last Children of Mill Creek by Vivian Gibson. I’ve been reading it over the past few days, and it’s a marvelous book. It’s a memoir of growing up in the Mill Creek Valley of St. Louis, a large Black district that was demolished and emptied out in the name of “urban renewal.” The story of Mill Creek is one of the tragic chapters of Missouri history, and it’s not well enough known. This memoir is beautiful and heartbreaking, and you should get a copy. Or tell your library to buy one!