Friday, January 31, 2014

Peter Yarrow: My Last Visit With Pete Seeger

Peter Yarrow of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary recounts his last visit with American folk legend Pete Seeger during Seeger's final illness. This account was written by Mr. Yarrow and published on his FaceBook page. It is a public posting, but it is necessary to be a FaceBook subscriber to access it, so I am posting the complete text and the picture that Mr. Yarrow chose to illustrate his essay here.  Pete Seeger died on Monday, January 27, 2014 at the age of 94. 

Peter Yarrow
My Last Visit With Pete

I had the privilege and honor to be with Pete this past Monday, not long before he finally passed. I came directly to his hospital room from the airport where I’d arrived from Tel Aviv, having just sung a couple of Pete’s songs the night before (“If I Had a Hammer” and “We Shall Overcome”) in a meeting with folks involved in efforts to advance the peace process in the Middle East. The magic of Pete’s songs, as frequently occurs, had a remarkable effect. When the discussion stopped and the music began that night in Ramallah, the spirit in the room changed; “positive” and “enthusiastic” replaced “not so sure” as we created a concrete plan that - who knows? one can always hope - might play a small part in, at last, bringing about a successful peace process.

I was not sure how much Pete understood my words but, nevertheless, by his bedside I told him about the previous night’s events before singing “We Shall Overcome” with his family and friends assembled. This song was shared close to the end of what was almost an hour and a half of remarkable singing at Pete’s bedside. Pete’s daughter Tinya, Pete’s grandson Kitama, other relatives, as well as beloved allies and friends - many who worked with Pete for years on the amazing Clearwater Sloop effort - sang together.

When I had first entered Pete’s room, I had quickly unpacked my guitar and then waited for the loveliest of songs to be finished by one of Pete’s extended family. Then I started to sing a subdued but still gently defiant (if that be possible) version of “We Shall Not Be Moved”. We all crowded around Pete, singing this old Union Song together, with friends on each side of the bed holding his hands. We sang that song for perhaps 7 or 8 minutes, with many verses about “young and old together”, “black and white together”, “gay and straight together”, “the union is behind us”, “no more poison fracking”, on and on.

Slowly the strength and beauty of the singing began to carry us all with it as we felt each other’s hearts unite, all of us singing directly to Pete, and beginning to ride on the sweetness of the sound we were making together. Everyone there was a really good singer and picker and everyone was wordlessly agreeing which song would come next, who would take a verse and how to sing a bit more passionately for a moment and then bring down the energy the next.

For me, it was precisely like some of the most wonderful moments I'd had with Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers when we felt so close and so intuitive that we fairly sailed together, enveloped in a beautiful gliding spirit that was no one’s and everyone’s doing. Honestly, it was more beautiful and peaceful, loving and joyous, (yes and tearful and, yes, reverent) than I can adequately describe.

A number of Pete’s Sloop songs were led by others, and I included “Oh,Freedom”, “Down By the Riverside”, “Talking Union” and “Union Maid” (we got most of the lyrics thanks to others’ memories filling in), a memorable version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, and even a passionate yet gentle version of “If I Had a Hammer”.

I wanted to tell Pete about singing “No Easy Walk to Freedom” with Noel Paul and Bethany & Rufus at the memorial for Nelson Mandela at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC a few weeks before, where, prior to our singing the song, I told the august audience of dignitaries from around the world of the trio having gotten arrested in our 25th year together as an act of civil disobedience in front of the South African Embassy (singing, what else?, “We Shall Overcome” along with my daughter, Bethany, Mary’s daughter Alicia, Mary’s mother Virginia, Rabbi David Saperstein and his colleague). I noted that Vice-President Joe Biden gave me the thumbs-up sign from the front row of hundreds of members of Congress when I mentioned that over 3,000 people got arrested over a two year period. I said that I was so proud that, together, Americans did make a difference by supporting the US boycott of South Africa to end Apartheid, and that the US finally agreed to end the boycott only if South Africa agreed to release Nelson Mandela — and that all this was only possible because Rep. Howard Wolpe drove the boycott vote over two successive vetoes by the then president, Ronald Reagan.

Lots of history, I know, but when we sang the song for Pete, having shared the above, I felt I was telling Pete, “See? We are all carrying it on in your footsteps, dear and beloved Pete, our mentor, our father (figure) to some like me (though he didn’t know it), our path blazer and brave leader.” “No Easy Walk”, as we sang it, was joyous, still subdued as was appropriate, but passionate. It was a great moment for me.

Some of us shared brief anecdotes with Pete prior to singing the songs. Also, it seemed that Pete was trying to sing along on some tunes, particularly on Woody’s “This Land Is Your Land”, despite the oxygen plastic cup covering his mouth and resting on his neck. When he raised his head and stretched his neck, it looked that way, though he might have been just reaching for more oxygen. I really don’t know, but there was no doubt, and it seemed clear, that Pete was really listening and enjoying the music lots and lots. Kitama later emailed me, “I am confident he knew who you were and recognized the songs.”

Pete’s wish, as Kitama had told me when he texted me “bring your guitar” to the hospital, was that he be surrounded by music in such a circumstance if it were to occur, and for about an hour and a half of true joy and some tears (of course), a great spiritual force filled the room and all our hearts.

Some of us said, “I love you” to Pete, as did I when I kissed his forehead before I left. “You’ve been my inspiration my whole life”, I said, and then remembering that at some point I was only 6 months old, I added “at least, most of my life”. I packed my guitar and left, noting that I’d be back the next day to sing once more, which did not, of course, come to pass.

I left feeling really peaceful and complete, with a feeling that Pete was, as he has always been, deep inside me. I also knew, though Pete would have been shy to acknowledge it, that there are thousands of (as Mary called our trio) “Seeger’s Raiders” who will carry on with Pete in their hearts, sharing the great gift of his music and his truly giving, uncompromising, pure spirit still resonating within us all.

As Arlo has so aptly said to Pete, in his imagined conversation, “See you soon” - and indeed I do, and shall, for the rest of my life.

Peter Yarrow, Jan 29, 2014

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reflecting On "Inside Llewyn Davis"

My lifelong love of folk music, now going back rather more than fifty years, impelled me this afternoon to go against all of my instincts and enter a movie theater for exactly the third time in twenty years to see a first-run movie,* the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. The first fifteen minutes at the venue reminded me emphatically of why I just won't go anymore. The $9.25 price tag for a weekday matinee - and that with a senior discount - is ridiculous: damned few films are worth that, especially figuring that they will all eventually find themselves remaindered to Netflix or Hulu or Amazon or Vudu, where for a flat rate per month I can watch a thousand movies if I want. Worse, I had to sit through seven - seven - mind-numbingly stupid previews of what passes for film entertainment in our republic today. I had to keep my forefingers planted deep within my ears for the entire fifteen minutes of this insulting nonsense - Dolby 7.0 SurroundSound and all - for fear of damage to my hearing, which was doubly ironic given the fact that I had come to see a movie about music.

This entrance proved to be a blessing of sorts, as I was half-expecting to dislike Llewellyn Davis. It has been reviewed generally positively and it is, after all, by Joel and Ethan Coen. But several of my folk music friends who were actually in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s had a number of problems with the project - the misrepresentation of real-life people on whom several of the characters seemed to have been based, the joyless gloom of much of the story, and some small but significant anachronisms. Additionally, several reviewers who seem to think the commercial fare purveyed by the record companies today as "roots music" is what folk music sounded like or is supposed to sound like complained that the score was bland and formless. Decades of experience had also predisposed me to approach Inside Llewyn Davis with my defenses up. Hollywood virtually never gets a time period right. Most every film I have ever seen depicting the 1960s (perhaps excluding Oliver Stone's The Doors) has left me howling with laughter at their raging inaccuracies, and only Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (spot-on perfect 1973) and parts of a handful of others have ever delivered a reasonable representation of any period of my life that I remember.

The one hundred minutes or so of the feature made me happy that I had survived the price and preview gantlet. Inside Llewyn Davis is for my money (pun intended) a very good film - a very, very good film. Once I put aside both expectations and trepidations, what I saw was a moving, highly intelligent character study of a profoundly troubled but somehow ultimately decent young man trying to come to grips with his own deeply-flawed personality, his painful past, and a harsh and exploitative business that is killing the last shreds of sensitive artistic ambition that he still clings to. It is not really about folk music very much at all, nor about the Village scene, nor about the early 1960s. These are devices of setting that underscore what the directors are really interested in showing: the slow self-destruction of a character who is neither strong enough nor cynical enough to survive in the world he has made for himself.

Lest that sound too somber and unappealing - it is still a Coen Brothers film, punctuated by dark and at times savage satire and even humor. Davis's record company owner (based perhaps on Moses Asch of Folkways Records) is a grasping, manipulative and dishonest jerk - but eminently watchable. The Tom Paxton character - soldier by day and folkie on weekend nights - is mercilessly lampooned as an "aw-shucks" simpleton, good-hearted, earnest, and decently talented but clueless. Other characters - a supercilious jazz musician, a Neal-Cassady-like Beat poet, a pair of university professors, a shrill but attractive young woman folksinger - also provide moments that are funny without ever disrupting the overall tone of the movie.

The key is to understand that the point of the film is to take the viewer inside Llewyn Davis, and this happens really only twice in the story, in two scenes which give form and sense to all the rest. The movie's name seems to refer to Davis's first solo album, clearly a riff in both title and cover photo to Inside Dave Van Ronk, "the mayor of McDougal Street" on whom Davis is purportedly loosely based.

But what is inside Davis for much of the story remains a mystery. His callous and abrasive behavior, his reticence about his performing career, his estrangement from his sister and family - these seem to have no motivation or rationale. What we do know is that Davis was formerly partnered with a good friend named Mike Timlin; together they produced an album that showed great promise, and the movie opens with what is supposed to be a track from that album, "Dink's Song":

Timlin and Davis no longer perform together, and for a long time the viewer simply assumes that it must have been an Everly Brothers-style break-up, motivated perhaps by Davis's difficult personality. But the truth is much darker, and that leads to one of the movie's extraordinary epiphanies. Davis has returned from an unsuccessful trip to Chicago and has been asked to dinner by a good-hearted but fatuous university professor and his wife who have helped him before. After the meal, the couple asks Davis to perform a song for them and their guests, and Davis reluctantly complies by starting "Dink's Song" as above. However - when the professor's wife starts to sing a perfect high harmony to Davis's lead - Timlin's part - Llewyn explodes into a frothing, cursing rage at the couple, at their request, at the world. As he stomps out of the apartment, we realize for the first and most compelling time in the film how much Timlin had meant to him, how important their collaboration had been, how rudderless Davis has become without his partner. It is our first real look inside, and it gives a shape and context to much of the rest of Davis's ill behavior both before and after the scene.

Toward the end, as Davis contemplates abandoning his music career and returning to the merchant marine, he visits his stony, uncommunicative, Alzheimer's-afflicted father in a convalescent home. Davis reaches out to the older man, trying unsuccessfully to talk to him, then decides instead to "sing a song you always liked," a song that Davis had first recorded when he was eight years old. The tune is "Shoals of Herring," a marvelous song of the sea written by the great Ewan MacColl, and the elder Hugh Davis had spent his life as a sailor. As Davis renders a quiet and moving performance, a light of recognition seems to kindle in the old man's eyes, and he tears up, perhaps with a fleeting glimmer of recognition. The intensity of the moment is too much for the younger Davis, and he returns to the Village for what may be his last performance. With the dinner scene, Davis's encounter with his father lets the viewer experience the inner pain that Davis feels and that he subsequently visits on everyone and everything around him - pain not completely of his own making, pain of disappointment and abandonment, pain of a sensitive and talented artist who cannot find his place in the world and never really has.

Inside Llewyn Davis has its fair share of apparent anachronisms and inaccuracies (the IMDB list is HERE, though the list misses quite a few like the Shubb capo Davis uses at one point - it won't be produced for several decades yet - and the fact that the "Shoals" song was written only a year before the supposed date of the plot), but to dwell on those misses the whole point. The film is not a documentary, and like most of the Coens' best work, the story exists in an imaginary world of its own, one that resembles some features of the real one but should never be mistaken for it. And Lllewyn Davis is absolutely beautiful to watch - the textures of winter in New York and Chicago, the rendering of apartments from long ago, the ubiquity of LPs, the fine details of look and lighting, the carefully crafted musical score - these all create the context through which the audience slowly comes to understand just what really is inside Davis.

A final point - several of the reviews I have seen (including in Rolling Stone) misidentify the Davis character as a "singer-songwriter." He's not. Llewyn Davis is a folk singer, a performer of traditional songs, not his own compositions - and such a singer was an endangered species even in the presumed time frame of the movie, a point underscored by just who takes the stage following Davis in the Gaslight Cafe near the conclusion. As the film ends, the singer-songwriters are on the march and are about to displace the Llewyn Davis character and his folk-loving friends forever. History is about to sweep Davis away, and that is an appropriately melancholy ending to a quiet and introspective minor classic.

*In the last three years, I have taken advantage of my under-employment to enjoy some splendid matinees sponsored by Turner Classic Movies of landmarks like Casablanca (and what a joy that was to see restored and with theater sound), Jane Eyre, and for the first time since its release fifty years ago, my all-time favorite film, Lawrence of Arabia. Those were worth the effort and the cost to see on the big screen, or see again. For my money, virtually every movie worth seeing since them is as enjoyable (or more so) seen at home on a conventional screen with good sound. But that's just above.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Peter O'Toole, 1932 - 2013

No other film and few books have informed and shaped my interior life as much as did Lawrence of Arabia, which I saw as a boy of 13 fifty years ago in the company of my closest sibling, Peggy Zwisler. The fictional Lawrence as imagined by screenwriter Robert Bolt and director David Lean is an idealist and a believer in the ability of a single committed individual to change the world - a world controlled by the cynics and manipulative power brokers who ultimately marginalize and destroy the title character - but not before he is able, to a limited degree, to accomplish what he set out to do, at an enormous cost to his own integrity and even his own soul. 

Never before and seldom since have I walked out of a theater or seen the closing credits of a film on television so thoroughly stunned by what I had just watched. I was literally and utterly speechless, and the images and themes of the movie have remained alive and vital within me for half a century now. Peter O'Toole's performance as the tortured and at times manic Lawrence was merely the first triumph of a long career of memorable realizations of a disparate set of characters - Henry II twice, Allan Swann, Lord Jim, Mr. Chips, Don Quixote, Eli Cross, and dozens more. O'Toole had a rare ability as an actor: no matter how grand or large or dramatic or humorous a script was, his acting transported the viewer into the inner life of the character, making even an epic like Lawrence finally the intimate portrait of a single person.

The scene in Lawrence that struck me most forcefully was the rescue of a character named Gasim, played by Indian actor I.S. Johar. Early in the film, O'Toole's Lawrence accomplishes an almost impossible trek across a vast stretch of desert, only to find that one of his group of fifty, Gasim, has been accidentally left behind somewhere in the sand. Lawrence starts back, though an oasis is in sight of the group, to rescue his companion - only to be told by his Arab troops that "It is written in the great book of heaven that Gasim's time has come." Lawrence disdains the belief that fate controls all and proceeds to rescue Gasim and bring him to safety. Near collapse from heat and thirst, Lawrence takes a drink of water and turns those impossibly blue eyes on his Arab friend who has told him to leave Gasim to his fate - and says in a measured voice with great affect - "Nothing is written." 

I cannot express how profoundly moved I was as a 13 year old boy by that scene - how much it fired my imagination and became one of my most deeply-held beliefs. "Nothing is written," indeed. I'm reminded of a comment made by O'Toole on "The Charlie Rose Show" a few years back, I believe around the time of his last Academy Award nomination. O'Toole had been a frequent and often prickly guest on Rose's program, so I winced a bit when Charlie waded right in with his first provocative question - which was to the effect, "You know, Peter, when they finally publish your obituary - you know what the lead is going to be - it'll be 'Lawrence of Arabia.' How does that strike you?" To his everlasting credit, O'Toole replied without so much as a blink and with consummate graciousness, "That will be just fine with me. I was lucky once in a lifetime to have had such a role." 

Fortunately for those of us who love good acting, Peter O'Toole elevated many roles to a level near that in a long and distinguished career. RIP with heartfelt thanks.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Woody Guthrie & The Kingston Trio

"We are all Woody's children" Pete Seeger remarked famously several decades ago, and by "we" he clearly meant everyone who loves American folk and roots music every bit as much as he meant those who collect and perform it. The folk revival in this country, however you wish to define it and whatever parameters you put on its duration, has certainly had its oracles and prophets both before and after Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, from John A. Lomax and Cecil Sharp through Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan and beyond. But the central figure of the revival, the one whose cultural significance a century after his July 14, 1912 birth still stands above that of all the rest, is the skinny kid from Okemah, Oklahoma whose personal charisma, charm, and talent for writing songs that touched and moved ordinary people to both emotion and action make him the single indispensable figure in American folk music.

That Guthrie was also a canny self-promoter who told a lot of tall tales about himself and was the primary painter of his own icon is also true as well. That he was a sometimes troubled soul with profound character flaws, a deep resentment of authority, and lifelong trouble maintaining stable relationships is equally true - and ultimately not especially relevant to his achievements except in one regard - and that is that his very iconization obscures, as it often does, the true nature of what he was able to accomplish in a musical life that was essentially over for him at the age of 40, fifteen years before what we would see today as his shockingly early death at 55.

The nature of that achievement and its importance is currently being celebrated, debated, and discussed across the airwaves and print media and websites of the nation, and properly so. I'm sure that many of these discussions will point to the popularity of Guthrie's work as essential to the creation of a genuinely national folk music in the U.S. where a mere 80 or so years ago none had existed - it was all regional material, and before the near-simultaneous arrival of Guthrie, radio, and records, Americans seldom heard much music from outside of their own localities and cultural niches. Many others will discuss Guthrie's lifelong commitment to unions and other progressive and radical causes and his willingness to put his own welfare on the line for what he believed in. Still more will praise him for his influence on later and usually lesser lights of the folk world that he helped to create. All of this is true, all of this is real - and all of this misses the simple and essential point of why we should and do still care about Woody Guthrie.

He wrote great songs. I mean, really really great songs - songs that decades after his death people still sing, people still march to, people still embrace, people still connect with, here and around the world. Guthrie's songwriter acolytes in later generations may have exceeded him in lyrical complexity and apocalyptic anger - but those are precisely the points at which they ceased to be folk musicians in any recognizable sense of the word and converted themselves into self-conscious artistes and percussionists for political movements. Folk music is in its very nature simple and repetitive - it is the music of The People, as poets Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg termed them, and that is the music that Woody Guthrie wrote. Many of his best songs sound familiar the first time you hear them, and you can usually sing them the second. Yet Guthrie is capable of lyrical brilliance unrivaled for its Whitman-esque beauty of simplicity -

I roamed and rambled, and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts...

As the sun was shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling
As the fog was lifting, a Voice was calling -
"This land was made for you and me."

No American lyricist has ever surpassed those lines for sheer American-ness - for an unselfconscious imagery derived from the real sight of his own two eyes and not from the pages of other people's poetry. You can remember those lines and hundreds more like them, and you can sing them again and again - and you want to. And Guthrie was able to do that in song after song, marrying his words to tunes sometimes traditional and sometimes of his own making but always ending up with compositions that were just, well, supremely singable.

Guthrie's radical politics still give some people pause, perhaps more in these benighted and reactionary times rather more than in decades earlier - but even in this regard there are serious misunderstandings of what he actually created. Consider, for example, the lyrics of two of his most famous creations, the above-quoted "This Land Is Your Land" and "Plane Wreck At Los Gatos," better known as "Deportee." Singers today often jubilantly include the verses from "This Land" that didn't make it into the school songbooks or folk revival LPs - the one about the "No Trespassing" sign most famously. But take a look at the real penultimate verses:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land still made for you and me?

Not a lot there to argue with there, I would think - no party-line commie-loving armed-revolutionary sedition, just the powerfully evocative compassion of a poet who loves his country and his people and who wants to see justice done both for them and for himself. Or take the conclusion of "Deportee" about the crash that killed more than twenty itinerant farm workers -

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

Again - could anyone seriously argue against such a sentiment or condemn it as radical? This is the real political Woody Guthrie, if not the sum total of his beliefs at least the very core and essence of them - compassion for people and passion for justice.

In the four years of this series, focusing as it mostly does on the Kingston Trio and pop-folk music, Guthrie's name has appeared in dozens of posts - as how would it not? - and six of his songs linked below have full articles on them. It is a revelation, I think, to look at the songs of Guthrie's that the KT chose to do. The Trio never tried to be a political entity, of course, but these were bright young men who understood the songs and exactly what they were all about. The high-spirited zest and the quietly moving compassion that the Trio brings to these performances are for me completely in tune with the essence of what Woody Guthrie was.

The songs are presented in the order that the Trio recorded them and followed by links to full posts about them.

The list could be longer, of course, were it to include songs performed or adapted by WG - but the only KT song actually substantially written by Woody that the KT recorded not here (no video out there) is "Those Brown Eyes."

Comparative Video 101 Posts On Woody Guthrie Songs

1. "This Land Is Your Land"

2. "Deportee"

3. "Pastures Of Plenty"

4. "The Sinking Of The Reuben James"

5. "Hard Travelin'"

6. "Hard, Ain't It Hard"

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Auld Lang Syne

...which is Scots dialect for "old(auld) long(lang) since(syne)," or the times that have faded and the days that are no more.

A friend's message board post got me thinking about the song, which will doubtlessly be played innumerable times around the world this evening. While I'm sure that I first heard it, as so many of us did, on radio and TV as played by Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, I really got into learning about OLS when as a teenager I found that it was a poem by Robert Burns, the most venerated writer in Scotland's history of distinguished writers and certainly for his verse in English one of the great poets of our language.

For aficionados of Irish and Scots folk music (or novels - think Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott), all the braes and aulds in the lyric don't pose much or a problem, and most of Burns' poem is in very comprehensible English. However - through the magic of Wikipedia and a computer snipping tool with a bow to Photobucket - here is the full poem and translation into our modern tongue:


So in sum - addressing a very dear longtime friend in the first verse, our speaker asks rhetorically, "Should we ever forget about the long-gone friends and times? Should we let 'the dead past bury its past'?" In answer to his or her own question, the speaker answers emphatically "No!" in the chorus - "For all the old times, we'll drink many a toast now and in times to come to remember the days of long ago." The remaining verses reminisce about the friendship between speaker and listener, and the lyric concludes with a pledge of eternal friendship.

And here are two of the many fine versions of the song on YouTube. First, somewhat as the tune would have been heard before Burns' poem was set to it, the pipes (with orchestra and some great pictures):

And who better to sing the song than one of Scotland's great folk performers, Dougie MacLean:

May we all ne'er forget the days of old long since as we charge bravely in what we all hope and believe will be a great 2012!

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Nick Reynolds Tribute - Lakeside, CA 11/27/11

Last night's Nick Reynolds Tribute show at Jimmy Dukes' Dark Thirty house concert venue in Lakeside, CA near San Diego was an event that was always delightful, frequently moving, and occasionally bittersweet. Organized largely by Josh Reynolds with some significant help from Triofan John Lee and others, the show featured performances (and as you might expect, virtually every number became a singalong) from members of Nick's extended family, a number of his longtime professional musician friends, and a healthy contingent from Nick's Fantasy Camp years. Also as you might expect from an event celebrating the life of as big-hearted a man as Nick was - the roster of players in those three groups frequently overlapped.

Notables in attendance included George Grove, Greg and Janet Deering of Deering Banjos, Nick's nephew Joey Harris (of a great 90s group The Beat Farmers), singer-songwriter James Lee Stanley, John Stewart's daughter Amy, and Mark Josephs, musician and founder of and The Tenor Guitar Hall of Fame. In addition to playing tenor and harmonica (excellently, in both cases), Josephs displayed the plaque that was the official notice of Nick's induction as the premier honoree in The Tenor Guitar HOF.

Josh Reynolds emceed the event, and his quips and tales of his dad and occasional tears of memory were the unifying element of the evening. The show was comprised of two fifteen song sets, with most of the songs naturally being Nick solos or ensemble numbers on which he sang the lead. Many of the songs that any KT fan would expect were part of the program - "MTA," "Hobo's Lullaby," "One More Town," "The Gypsy Rover," "The Mountains of Mourne," "Little Boy," and "Bad Man's Blunder," among many others.

In addition to the hall of fame presentation, another highlight of the evening was relative Mike Marvin's reading of a letter from Nick to his grandmother written in April of 1957. Beyond strictly family matters, Nick informed her that the still-developing trio had fired their agent and were looking for a replacement at a "freelance guy" named Frank Werber, who in Nick's words had "ten times the ability and a hundred times the honesty" of the guy they had dropped. Nick also said that even if the move cost them some bookings, he wasn't afraid and was really happy because "we are getting so good that it's scary."

Musical highlights were too numerous to catalog, and there may well be a CD available soon. My own favorites included James Lee Stanley's "Badman's Blunder" and "Catch The Wind," FC friend Peter Overly's marvelous rendition of "Mountains of Mourne," Nick's great niece Maddie White's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" and Josh Reynolds' version of my own all-time favorite Nick solo, "The Wanderer" - as before, among many, many others.

A few pictures now - a bit dim and hazy because they were taken with an inexpensive small camera...

Tom Lamb, John Triofan Lee, George Grove - "Mark Twain"

John Lee, Mikey Burns, George Grove - "Bottle of Wine"

Ensemble Including (L-R) Mike Marvin, Mark Josephs, Mikey Burns, John Lee, Peter Overly, Tom Lamb, George Grove, Joey Harris, Dave Batti

James Lee Stanley and Michael Bettendorf - "Catch The Wind"

Stanley, Grove, and Josh Reynolds - "Badman's Blunder"

Grove, Mike Marvin, Lamb, Maddie White, Stanley, Joey Harris - "Flowers"

Josh Reynolds - "The Wanderer"

Ensemble: Lee, Marvin, Stanley, Grove, Overly, Reynolds, Batti

Many members of the KT/FC extended family were in attendance, including my friends Dan Hartline and George Jensen. When I noted the bittersweet aspect of it all - that Nick was no longer with us - Bakersfield Dan beamed that inimitable smile of his, gestured toward the stage at the performing musicians, and said - "Of course he is."

Amen to that.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Some Vintage KT Reviews

I posted this article on a message board that does not archive; preserving them here.

Even after the recent revocation of some of the "preview" rights that had enabled Google to include large sections of many copyrighted books online, Google Books remains a remarkable resource. Whilst trolling around this morning in the hundreds of research links that I have bookmarked (sometimes for reasons that I have forgotten) - I came across the following three articles.

First, from the January 12th, 1959 issue of
Billboard, a short review of a Kingston Trio show at NYC's legendary Blue Angel night club:


Interesting side note - the Blue Angel was a
jazz club primarily. The KT's appearance there in January anticipates its appearance in April at the Newport Jazz Festival (which led to its appearance at the premier newport Folk Festival in July of that year) and the fact that the liner notes to the group's second studio album At Large were written by Downbeat Magazine editor and jazz critic Nat Hentoff. The group is still playing nightclubs primarily at this point; the college shows are yet to come.

From the Nov. 28, 1960 edition of
Billboard, a review of a concert at Carneige Hall on 11/23/60:


Interesting - a concert at Carnegie Hall was generally considered the apex of a performing artist's career, but the fact that the KT played there has been one of those under-the-radar facts that never generated much historical note.

Finally, a review from almost a year later - November 6, 1961, from the Windsor Star, this being Windsor, Ontario right across the Detroit River from - Detroit:


Trio fans will find this amusing. Dave Guard had actually left the KT several months before, replaced by John Stewart. The reviewer has confused Guard with Nick Reynolds, who remained with the group for its full ten-year first incarnation.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

In Memoriam, Bo Wennstam - 1939-2011

Bo Wennstam was a friend of mine from the folk music world. We were drawn together by a mutual love of the music of the Kingston Trio, whose sole surviving member Bob Shane broke the news of Bo's death here in the U.S. (Bo was a Swede who lived in Mallorca.) This is a copy of the post I made to the KT message board; there will be more to say about Bo very soon.

Bob Shane's message about the passing of Bo Wennstam, though not unexpected, is still a major blow to all of us who knew him in three dimensions - though his loss is incalculable to those of us who love the Kingston Trio and were acquainted with him only in cyberspace. I believe he would have been happy and proud to know that it was Bob himself who broke the news to us, and the boy inside of Bo even in his latter years - the boy who in Sweden so loved the KT and folk music - would have been deeply gratified that this was so.

Tributes to Bo from his friends are coming in already, and I'd like to share some of them here, as well as direct people to some of Bo's remarkable legacy. But first, taking my cue from Rick Daly's FolkUSA Rogue's Gallery - here is the man himself.

Bo Wennstam

Bo With Good Friends Josh Reynolds (L) and Bert Williams(R)

Bo At FC10 With Fellow Rogue Mick Coates

Completing The FC International Trio Of HellRaisers, Scotland's Tom Craig

Bo loved Fantasy Camp and attended in 2007, 2008, and 2009. He shot and uploaded 324 videos of the event, everything from stage performances (including the very last appearance of the NBJ KT together performing in public) to jam sessions to the wonderful instructional videos of Tom Sanders and Bert Williams. 324 videos. Should this event last 100 years, it will never be covered more comprehensively. The videos are available here:

Bo Wennstam's Fantasy Camp Channel On YouTube

Bo's channel should remain on YouTube as long as the site lasts - there are no maintenance requirements or fees. I believe that some of us with decent computer skills and a bit of time could begin to organize these on a third party site. I've left a comment on the channel and invite any other YouTube registered clients to do so as well.

As a tribute to Bo (who is mentioned here), master musician and FC regular Fred Grittner posted his FC re-write of the classic Kingston Trio song "I'm Going Home" to Bo's FaceBook page. Here it is:

A wonderful tribute indeed as Bo goes home.

It has also become customary in the short life of FaceBook for friends and acquaintances to post a remembrance on a user page when someone passes on. If you are a registered FaceBook member, you can "write on the Wall" of Bo even if you're not a FB friend. His page is here:

Bo Wennstam's FaceBook Page

Bo's good friend Tom O'Donnell recorded one of Bo's favorite songs by former KT player John Stewart called "Some Kind Of Love," and friend Max Schwartz created a video montage of pictures of Bo and Fantasy Camp to go with the music. They sent it to Bo in early December, so Bo had the chance to see and appreciate Tom's work on behalf of their friendship.

As I believe many of us already know from decades of living and the losses that that entails, we will feel Bo's absence most intensely when we, God willing, all assemble again where we knew him best, next August in Scottsdale. To say that Bo's spirit will hover over and with us might seem to be a sentimental cliche - except that those of us who knew him and his complete love of all things Kingston realize how thoroughly true it is. "I am a part of all that I have met," wrote Tennyson in Ulysses, and all of us who knew Bo will carry that part of him that touched us til the end of our own days.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Primary Source: Review Of The 1959 Newport Folk Festival

My friend Mary Katherine Aldin - she of the radio show that we appear on, voting member of the executive committee of the NARAS (Grammy people) who are giving the KT the upcoming award, officer of the Folk Alliance, producer and liner note writer for the KT Newport CD, and more - has in her home what is likely the most remarkable folk archive in the U.S., tens of thousands of items from posters to vinyl albums to handwritten notes from EVERYbody, plus articles. Tonight she sent me this, knowing my interest in the KT. It is the first review (from the NY Daily News, I believe) of the triumphant KT appearance at the Newport Folk Festival of 1959. The writer garbles some song names and facts, but this is first-hand account with a picture I've never seen before of of that seminal event.


I cannot resize this further to embed here, but if you double click on the picture, it will take you to the image on Photobucket. Once there, put your cursor on the top of the picture and you'll see some menu tabs, including one for "Resize." Put the cursor on that anc click "More Options," and you will get an editable image for which you can use the slider - about 200% is good.

Another re-size:

 photo KTnp1_zps29fca1ba.jpg

 photo KTnp2_zps986be159.jpg

Friday, October 01, 2010

Another Nick Reynolds Tribute

By Daniel Kreps, Rolling Stone Magazine, 10/2/08:

Kingston Trio Founding Member Nick Reynolds Dead at 75

Nick Reynolds, one of the founding members of folk group the Kingston Trio, died today at a San Diego hospital. He was 75. Reynolds was in the hospital’s ICU for several weeks before his family made the decision today to take him off life support. As the guitarist for the Kingston Trio, Reynolds performed on the band’s hits like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Tom Dooley,” which was a Number One song in 1958 and won them a Grammy. The trio won their second Grammy the following year for their album The Kingston Trio At Large. The band is also credited with helping to usher in the folk movement that ultimately spawned artists like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

“Nobody could nail a harmony part like Nick. He could hit it immediately, exactly where it needed to be, absolutely note perfect — all on the natch. Pure genius,” said Bob Shane, who with the passing of Reynolds is now the lone surviving Trio member. Original member Dave Guard died in 1991 of cancer, and his replacement John Stewart passed away earlier this year from a brain aneurysm. Reynolds is survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Rare Folk Recording: Art & Paul, "Puff The Magic Dragon"

Art and Paul, a legendary but short-lived Greenwich Village-based folk duo from the late 1950s and early 1960s, perform a version of the now-classic children's song "Puff, The Magic Dragon" recorded in 1961, two years prior to the release of Peter, Paul and Mary's far more famous rendition.

Art Podell and Paul Potash were friends who joined musically in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, just at the time when the "pop folk" boom that had originated largely on the West Coast began to bring attention to the plethora of talented musicians and songwriters who had already been working in the Village, in some cases for years.

Podell and Potash were painstaking in their arrangements, sometimes taking weeks to work out the nuances of a single song. They were rewarded with a loyal following in clubs and concerts and with a contract with major label Columbia Records, which was looking to cash in on the burgeoning folk boom but as yet had no folk artists in their stable of performers.

The duo's first Columbia release, Art and Paul: Songs of Earth and Sky[1960] is today regarded as a lost classic; copies of the record are very hard to find and sell at top dollar to folk aficionados when they become available. Earth and Sky led to the recording of a second album, Hangin', Drinkin' and Stuff[1961] before Art and Paul left for the West Coast, where without either consistent bookings or record sales they disbanded. In 1962, Podell became a member of the folk ensemble The New Christy Minstrels, a group that Potash joined two years later during the height of its considerable popularity.

Prior to the bit of fame and fortune enjoyed by Art and Paul, Podell had become friends back in Greenwich Village with another struggling young folksinger, Peter Yarrow. Yarrow's roommate at Cornell University, Leonard Lipton, had written a fragmentary children's poem about a dragon that Yarrow had completed and for which he had written a melody. Yarrow shared the newly-completed "Puff, The Magic Dragon" with Podell right around the time that Warner Brothers Records, also looking for a successful folk act, had united Yarrow with Noel "Paul" Stookey and the late Mary Travers to form the trio Peter, Paul and Mary.

As Art Podell's introduction on this rare recording indicates, the Art and Paul duo was so taken with Yarrow's composition that they added it to their concert sets. The recording here features Podell's and Potash's distinctive arranging style in rhythm and harmony.

Video images are of Art and Paul, of their first album, of other albums on which Podell played, along with later pictures of the New Christy Minstrels and Podell in a recent photo.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

More Historical Fun Facts And Charts: And These Guys Are NOT In The Grammy Hall of Fame?

Editor's note: Happy to report that the post title is no longer true. On December 22, 2010, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS - the Grammy people) announced that the Kingston Trio was to be given the Lifetime Achievement award on 2/13/11 - and this is essentially the Grammy HOF.

The following chart facts were culled from Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Albums, the 2001 edition. Whitburn and his Record Research, Inc. are about the last word in accuracy about record sales charts, and he has a new edition of the book just out.

The dominance in the last decade of Jay-z and other hip hop artists suggests that the KT's rank may slip a bit in some of the categories below - but some are cemented in history, like "most weeks with a charting album by decade," where the KT's rank is permanent.

Note that most of these chart summaries refer to position on the charts or appearance on them and do not refer to total record sales. Still - very impressive.









Monday, August 16, 2010

It Was Five - Not Four, Not One

(This post is being uploaded here by request; it appears now on a website that does not archive its posts.)
Since the publication of The Kingston Trio On Record in 1986, many if not most Trio fans became aware (if they had not been before) that our favorite group established a milestone in entertainment history in 1959 when they had four albums simultaneously in the Top Ten of Billboard's Top LPs chart, now known as the Billboard 200.

The note about this in KTOR on p. 37 mentions the date of December 7, 1959 and lists the albums and their chart positions. Nowhere do Allan Shaw & Co. say that this was the only week for the Trio achievement (and achievement it was; even the Beatles only ever managed to place three) - but dozens and scores of commentators have inferred that KTOR's meaning was just that - one remarkable week, but that's all. You'll see allusions to that all over the internet - AllMusic, Amazon, many many more.

In the months after I finished my KT Wikipedia article, I've continued quietly to refine it, rewrite it to overcome some of the edits that were forced into it by evaluators, and to provide more definitive sources. In the process of doing so, I discovered - so I thought - that the KT had accomplished the four albums thing in four consecutive weeks, not one, and I rewrote the Wiki accordingly and mentioned the fact here.

Well, pride goeth before the fall, and I have been done in by my own hubris. I just didn't check thoroughly enough. Unlike Allan and Co in '86 - we have Google Books today and every single issue of Billboard from the 1930s forward online and complete. The tale it tells is even more impressive, as the correct number of weeks is five. Rather than make anyone click away to see - take a look, with dates:







These, of course, are .pdfs of the pages from the actual magazine - not summaries.

I'm not sure that this seemed as big a deal at the time as it does today (or should). Why not?

1) The country was not as statistic-maniacal as it is today;

2) The guys were young and weren't making much $$$$$ off of this: the record company got most of it, and successful records were mainly a springboard to successful $$$$-making concert tours;

3) The album charts themselves were pretty new, relatively.

4) 33 1/3rpm albums were pretty new and sales of them were not yet the hallmark of a performer's success that they would become. The KT had a lot to do with making that so.

Before you can change a public perception, you have to say something - even a factual something - over and over and over again before it roots in the public consciousness as fact. So let's all get busy setting the record straight on this. Tell someone. A neighbor. Your mother-in-law. Strangers on the street. This was a remarkable thing to happen, and it's now all but forgotten.

I only hope that when the committee to secure a place for the KT in the Grammy Hall of Fame next meets with the brass that they do so armed with the correct facts. Tell 'em that you saw it here.

Addendum, 12/29/10

And someone apparently did.
Happy to report that on December 22, 2010, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS - the Grammy people) announced that the Kingston Trio was to be given the Lifetime Achievement award on 2/13/11 - and this is essentially the Grammy HOF.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Promise Fulfilled

(Note: This was originally posted in June of 2007 at the time of the event. That post was spammed with 84 comments in Japanese promoting a product, so I'm deleting it and re-posting the article now.)

Philip S. Gutierrez was formally inducted as a trial judge on the federal bench for the Central District of California on June 13, 2007. A graduate of Cantwell High School in Montebello, California in 1977, the University of Notre Dame in 1981, and UCLA Law School in 1984, Judge Gutierrez invited several members of the judiciary and the bar to speak at his induction. The only speaker who was not involved in the legal community was the author of this blog, Judge Gutierrez's teacher for all four of his high school years. Following are my remarks at the ceremony.

Induction Of The Hon. Philip Gutierrez
Judge, US Federal District Court
June 13, 2007

Honorable members of the Judiciary and the Bar, and family and friends of Phil Gutierrez -

I have known Phil Gutierrez for just under thirty four years, since he was a freshman at Cantwell High School in Montebello. It is just a few days past the thirtieth anniversary of Phil's graduation from Cantwell - June 1, 1977 - a date that I have a multitude of reasons to remember, not the least of which was the salutatorian speech that Phil delivered that beautiful late afternoon, in which he urged his classmates "never to stop living, never to get smothered into something unwanted, but most of all to live as people" - part of the definition of which, he had earlier asserted, was being "not afraid to touch, or to be touched."

I am struck, these three decades later, by how thoroughly Phil has lived out that credo himself, though as I found out in an hour's conversation last night, he has long forgotten exactly what he said that day.

It should surprise no one here, I think, that many of the qualities that characterize Phil today were in evidence in the boy I first knew in the Seventies. He had, for example, the same dogged persistence that at its best was a hall mark of his genuine scholarship but could also at times be trying and even verge on the annoying. When Phil had a point to make, he could argue it until you were tempted to give in to him out of sheer exhaustion. More commonly, when he had a question, he would pursue its implications until he had found an answer that satisfied him, typically an extended and once again frequently exhausting process.

Some of the earliest and most treasured memories of my long career as a teacher were the frequent, almost daily visits to my classroom after school by Phil and a friend or two to pursue further some issue that had arisen in class, or to render some judgment on the state of world affairs, or to vent some anger at whatever the latest outrage that had occurred at out school was. Usually, the echoes of the dismissal bell hadn't even subsided before he was in my room, standing politely for often an hour or more to the side of my desk, to badger, to listen, to argue, to persuade - to do all that was necessary to nurture a developing intellect of the range and depth that I know characterize him to this day. Phil was the first genuine student I had and remains all these years later perhaps the most complete of the nearly ten thousand I have taught.

I was delighted by Phil's continued growth in college. Many of you know that he went to Notre Dame, but I'm not sure if it is as commonly known that he turned down Stanford and Yale to do so. I was pleased by his choice, really not primarily because I went there as well, but rather more because I felt that sending this dynamo of energy and questions into the heart of a bastion of white, traditional, Middle American Catholicism would be good for both him and for the institution. For Phil, I hoped that Notre Dame would challenge him as it had challenged me to live a life of meaning and affect, to become in the oft-quoted words of Gandhi "the change you seek in the world." For our now-shared alma mater, I hoped that Phil would help to break down some of the calcified and narrow perceptions of what it meant to be scholarly, or Catholic, or American. Though I am not sure in what shape Notre Dame survived the encounter, Phil flourished there, and part of the arc of his career is, I think, attributable to a pre-existing moral centeredness that was enhanced and nurtured by his years in South Bend.

Whether or not Phil exactly intended to do so when he asked me to say a few words today, I am here as a link to that past of his that includes Notre Dame and Cantwell High School. I regard myself today as a stand-in for all of the teachers of his early life - for the late Joe Richards, social studies instructor extraordinaire and the other teachers and coaches who helped him grow through adolescence; for Father Richard McBrien, former theology department chair at Notre Dame whom Phil identified as his greatest professor in college and whose compassionate and courageous moral stances have cost him dearly throughout his career - and for all the professors at Notre Dame and UCLA who contributed to his formation as an intellect and a scholar; and even, if it is not too presumptuous so to suggest, for his first and greatest teacher, his late mother, whose dedication to his growth and education permeates this chamber as surely as if she were here in the flesh.

On that June evening thirty years ago when Phil addressed his assembled teachers and family and friends and started the journey that has taken him to this place and this day, he began to become the change that he seeks - as one of the first and surprisingly and distressingly few Latino jurists in the federal court system, as a force for what is good and just in society at large, as a role model for other young people of challenges and background similar to his own. When Phil spoke that evening of living as fully humanly as possible, he was paraphrasing, I believe, the last poem we studied in his English class, "I Think Continually" by Stephen Spender, who asserts that to be "truly great," in the words of the poem, it is necessary "never to allow gradually the traffic/To smother with noise and fog the flowering of the spirit." Spender's peroration is splendid and most apropos today - he urges us to emulate

"The names of those, who in their lives, fought for life -

Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun,

And left the vivid air signed with their honor."

I am confident that as he has in the past, the Honorable Philip S. Gutierrez will continue to write his name, large and with honor, across this phase of his life and career. Congratulations, Your Honor.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Eagles' Timothy B. Schmit Remembers Nick Reynolds

Like many rock musicians who came of musical age in the 1960s, Schmit started off in the early 1960s playing folk music in an acoustic trio. That trio — Tim, Ron & John — was modeled after the Kingston Trio, the highly influential group co-founded by San Diegans Nick Reynolds and John Stewart.
Reynolds died here late last year at age 75. Schmit credits him as a key influence and proudly notes that he got to befriend Reynolds barely half a year before his death: “Tim, Tom & Ron was a Kingston Trio copycat band and Nick was the guy I copied. I even got a tenor guitar like him, although mine was a cheap imitation.
“Nick’s wife called me early last year to ask if I’d play at a memorial concert for John Stewart, and I said ‘Absolutely.’ I didn’t know Nick would be there. He was in a wheelchair and we had a really good talk. His son told me Nick had all these old instruments and the family has entrusted me as the caretaker of Nick’s tenor guitar, which is a thrill to have. The Reynolds family is trusting me with it, which is unbelievable to me.”

"The first singing group I was in, we were such fans of the Kingston Trio that we dressed exactly like them and sang their songs. In fact I just found a really great picture. We're rehearsing for our first gig and I'm 14 years old. I'm looking at it right now because I've gotta put it on my Web site. And I'm playing a tenor guitar just like Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio did. About 6 months before Nick Reynolds died (in October 2008), I finally got to meet him. I became friends with he and his wife. He was pretty ill and somewhat incapacitated, but he was the sweetest guy. I have his tenor guitar right in my studio here, sort of on indefinite loan for me to keep. It's the same guitar that played on "Tom Dooley," some of those old hits. Don't get me started! They were definitely a big influence on me."

from Dean Goodman's Interview On MySpace

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Just For Fun

I've spun off two new blog pages in the last week or so to accommodate my more specifically musical interests and (to a smaller degree) in response to several requests for pages on these specific topics.

First, I've begun to assemble different elements into a memorial page for the late Americana/folk/roots music singer-songwriter John Stewart, who died in January at the age of 68. I've known of and followed Stewart since about 1960, and only when he died did I fully realize the impact that his music had had on me.

This page is in its formative stages, and I expect it to grow over time to include more reminiscences, more music, and more perspective. Right now, it's a good source for links and a pleasant place to see some Stewart videos without the clutter of YouTube:

The John Stewart Memorial Page

I was also asked to insure that some posts I'd written to one of the music discussion groups to which I contribute wouldn't disappear after they "fell off" the pages, as this board - Kingston Crossroads, discussing both the Kingston Trio and folk/roots music in general - has no permanent archive.

The posts in question included different video performances of songs originally recorded by the Kingston Trio and subsequently covered by others, at times more famously. I also give a brief history of each song and some comments on the performances - it's called "Comparative Video 101" and is here:

Comparative Video 101

Both of these tend to be updated with a bit more regularity than The Vivid Air since I'm doing a lot more work in music these days with the release of a group CD I produced, remixed, and mastered (and of course performed on) called "The Chilly Winds: Live In Colorado" and a solo album that I'm currently putting together.

Stop by these pages and check out the notes and videos.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Place And Privilege

(Alissa Costello, J.K. Moran)

On Sunday June 8, 2008, I attended my thirty-fifth high school graduation ceremony as a teacher. These are always poignant late afternoons, suffused as they are with the joys of youth and the moment and the melancholy of goodbyes that only age can comprehend.

This year's graduation at Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, California - my professional home these many years - was graced by an extraordinary valedictory address by an extraordinary young lady. Alissa Costello was elected senior class president for the Class of '08 a year ago, and the chief and final duty of this position at our school is to deliver an address to and on behalf of her classmates at graduation, the only student to speak at the ceremony. Alissa, one of the most distinguished students in her class and one of the most impressive I have ever encountered in the long decades of my career, rose to the moment with an address that was at once playful and heartfelt, emotional and intellectual - just exactly what a graduation speech should be. That her classmates and the assembled audience appreciated it goes without saying.

Its larger significance, though, I believe to be the credit it reflects by extension on many young people too often belittled, minimized, and disregarded by their elders for their perceived behavior, attitudes, preferences, tastes in music and entertainment, and just about everything else - "slackers," they are often called and depicted as. The generational hubris of doing so is appalling - as if millions of individuals could be lumped into or expressed by any term, be it "Boomer" or "Gen X" or "Greatest Generation" or any other such nonsense.

Alissa Costello is none of these. She is simply a gifted and thoughtful young woman who will be developing her considerable abilities at Harvard come autumn. She speaks here for herself and her classmates only - but for me, her voice in these words resounds with a kind of hope and affirmation that suggest to me that when the torch is passed, it will be eagerly received by some very capable hands. This is what she said.

Good Evening, and Welcome......

In considering the significance of today, I am led to what John Steinbeck said of the morning dawn: “It is the hour of the pearl. The interval between day and night, when time stops and examines itself.”

For the 76 Mayfield students on this platform, it is our “hour of the pearl.” Today, we are called to examine ourselves—the ‘was, is, and will be’— in preparation for the dawn.

When I pause to inspect the range of desires and impulses, the variety of insecurities and hesitations, the many moments of confusion and success, no surprise— it’s daunting.

I realize now that high school

is ceaseless yearning,

is profound uncertainty,

is joyous disorder,

and is adolescent shouts, like that of John Cusack in Say Anything, when he yells:

“I’m [just] looking for a dare-to-be-great situation.”

And yet, in spite of all this, here we stand, fully intact and looking ahead.

2008 poses a new season of conflict for us. So maybe, in this hour of the pearl, we can identify just what gives us the audacity to question our own futures, the daring to seek our own greatness.

To outsiders, Mayfield a gated campus with manicured lawns; a marble entryway with trimmed foliage. When you pass through the front gate, you are instantly aware of Privilege. Considering the opportunities given to us, the profound care and attention provided, I am drawn to wonder at this hour of the pearl:

What is the essence of Privilege?

If you were to ask the students what Mayfield is, a number of standard responses might be delivered:

Freshman might say: 300 girls.

Sophomores might say: no boys.

Juniors might say: no sleep.

But, I see Mayfield—through our uniforms

I have a Sue Mills uniform shirt sitting on my dresser—still in the plastic package. Folded, crisp—unworn…

At Mayfield, seniors are liberated from their uniforms for the final 3 weeks of school, encouraged to donate those un-sharpied, un-stapled, untattered items to the Used Uniform Sale.

So— why do I still have an unused white oxford?

Somehow, I managed to avoid opening this final package all year. When I finally acknowledged this evasion, I realized, that I was unable to face its implications.

It has become, over the year, the constant reminder of a waning childhood—

the indicator of a Privilege it took me 18 years to understand.

When I pack for college, I will encounter my Mills oxford shirt, still wrapped. I will run my eyes over its contents, and indulge for a moment in the lingering echoes of Monday morning reunions— always as if a weekend merits reunion.

Each one of us has been identified as a Mayfield student, at least once, by our uniform.

As a matter of fact, on my second day at Mayfield, while walking home, an unknown white car pulled up next to me, and the driver said, “Hop in, I’ll give you a lift.” Although I didn’t recognize the car, I immediately recognized the face.

Sr. Barbara… did not know me, but she knew my uniform...

Sometimes, when I walk down the street under the blare of my headphones, I’ve felt eyes on me, and turned to see stares.
The glance only grazes my face, quickly proceeding to my white Oxford and red Pleats.

I can feel the silent conclusions being drawn: prep, protected, sheltered, wealthy, naïve, and finally, the kicker, Privileged.

Tucked away under the pulse of Jimi Hendrix, I would cast my eyes back to the cement wondering,

“what is this privilege they project on to my uniform?”

I had been categorized and dismissed.

Eventually, I found myself staring back, challenging them for what they assumed.

Over the years I realized that what the stares failed to see was the truth behind the uniform. Privilege? Absolutely.

But not in the way they had imagined. Not even in the way I had imagined.

Ours—was the privilege of relationship,

the privilege of expectation

the privilege of choice.

I have come to understand that the white oxford and red pleats DO in fact, characterize Privilege.

This gated community of majestic buildings and manicured lawns is NOT a reflection of indulgence, but rather of the conscious and deliberate decision to provide freedom.

The Privilege suggested in my uniform, is an offer of freedom to transcend and to thrive—the freedom to desire and then to choose.

I now recognize— that the undeniable Privilege bestowed upon our adolescence is an offer of possibility.

We have been given the Privilege to pause—the Privilege to dream in preparation for choice;

Through the sacrifice and intention of parents who were available far beyond tuition payments— available to make countless trips

late at night to Kinko’s for project deadlines,

or early in the morning to Party City for birthday balloons.

But more than that— parents are here everyday for board meetings, committee meetings, breakfasts, teas, lunches, barbeques;

available to attend performances, openings, concerts, games;

available to engage in extended dialogues about our future, and our plans.

Our voices are encouraged; our voices are heard.

We have been afforded privilege through the determination and wonder of an astonishing faculty, who would

come in at lunch for an emergency review of cellular mitosis,

or pass around licorice during a test to ease the mental strain.

We have experienced privilege at the hands of a dedicated and selfless maintenance and security team.

Ultimately, it is to them that I dedicate this commencement speech from the class of 2008, because I think they are the metaphor at the essence of privilege.

Though usually unseen, they construct runways on the lawn for ceremonies and fashion shows, and of course— Graduations;

they battle spring storms with sheets of tent plastic, protecting afternoon tea parties. They are here to greet me when I drive in, and to say goodbye when I leave.

But where does this Privilege lead? At the core of what we have been provided through the purpose and generosity of our parents, faculty, maintenance, security, administration and staff, is the privilege to seek— To seek our own pearl.

An identity has NOT been thrust upon us here. Rather, we have been challenged and guided, we have been privileged, to create the self, that may now be reflected upon in this hour.

Essentially, Mayfield recognizes that supreme protection must be guaranteed if choice is to become possible.

Roz Kaveney notes that in the modern age, “our imaginations have been colonized.” Mayfield has battled this occupation by granting us the Privilege to be fearless;

fearless to investigate and construct an identity through expansive imagination.

The Privilege we have been offered, can only be seen through our authenticity. When the Great ‘08 is out in the community, Mayfield radiates from within them, and all anyone can see, is the resulting light.

Surrounded by the community of young women I have come to take absolute solace in, I could sit here— on the gate forever.

But as dawn turns to day, the hour of the pearl draws to a close.

While we cannot be entirely sure what to do with the possibility beyond those gates, we must pass through them.

Only now that I must exit the gates, can I truly appreciate entering them.

When I recall meeting my classmates freshman year, I do not remember appearances, because those were shared— simple white oxford and red pleats.

I remember the sounds of their voices—the nature of their ideas and beliefs.

Long after I have left Mayfield, when I reflect upon the group of girls I spent my adolescence with, I will not remember the surfaces.

I will remember who they were.

I will remember who they became.

I can now confess— that I am a reluctant traveler.

While my eyes sparkle at the idea of what’s to come, and the choices that await— I am SO happy here.

I am attached to my town—my coffee-shop, record store, video-store—

my friends, my Mom—my life.

But Privilege has prepared us to leave.

And I will go.

We will go.

But my heart— my heart will always be here.

Thank you Mayfield.