I'll play the Theater of the Absurd--at last".
--old Be Bop Deluxe song
In my real life, I'm an attorney, who spent Saturday from 7:15 in the morning until 5:30 at night writing an important brief. This process, now well familiar to me, involving drafting text, scanning legal databases for cases, and working on the various document assembly matters, consumed my entire day, including the part of a warm-ish December day I'd hoped to set aside for a nice walk at the Dallas Arboretum.
My work life is not at all a bad life, really, because I enjoy the intense thought that goes into the process. I think that people under-value the opportunity for mind-stretching an intense work project can feature. I like that sense that the rich sea of intellectual stars involved in any profession create a sort of alternative universe, which one can visit with one's personal mental teleportation device.
I think, sometimes, I picture myself in some alternative life, teaching undergraduates things I barely know myself, and reaching similar complexity of focus on, say, Winifred Holtby's male characters, or Etruscan religious rituals. I imagine that ideas unfettered by any responsibility but to truth must be a heady thing, indeed. I respectfully dissent from my acquaintances who are doing dissertations about the rigors of that process, because it is my theory that life is about doing one's dissertation, one way or the other.
This morning, though, I'm on a different track. I'd like to discuss what I'll call that Folk Singer Inside.
When I was 17, I was in an English class in which I had to write the dreaded five paragraph essay. I must say that my 11th and 12th grade English classes were perhaps the best college preparation I had, because the five paragraph essay served me in good stead my entire undergraduate career. It's a kind of prose poem, you know, with its format as follows:
1. Subject of essay sentence, 3 sentences about the subject, each discussing ome of the three topics which will be covered about the subject, and then reiteration of what will be accomplished
2. First topic, 3 sentences about first topic, each revealing a facet of the topic, and then conclusion of topic, setting forth what was covered.
3. Second topic, 3 sentences about second topic, each revelating a facet of the topic, conclusion of topic, setting forth what was covered
4. third topic, 3 sentences about third topic, each revelating a facet of the topic, conclusion of topic, setting forth what was covered
5. introduction to conclusion, 3 sentences summarizing what was said above, concluding sentence.
This form is quite easy to use, and got me many an "A" in college. I remember once tutoring a girl who got a "D" on her first freshman writing paper. I showed her this simple formula, and her grades instantly lifted in that class. It was like a 15 second miracle.
I have developed, over time, a longing to live my life like that five paragraph essay form. I think of folk singers when I think of the model to which I aspire. I'm thinking of one night at a post-new-wave venue called Theater Gallery in the once-hip Deep Ellum area of Dallas, where I waited to see the anything-but-hip folk singer Christine Lavin.
For those who are unfamiliar with her work, she writes simple, pleasant folk songs which show a light-hearted wit, a straightforward but not showy social conscience, and a good down to earth style. She used to be Philo's "big seller", she's always very supportive of other folk singers, and she's carved a niche in which people everywhere will turn up at church coffee shop Saturdays to see her, but she will never be asked to soundtrack Lexus commercials.
On this particular evening she was a bit late for the show,and her manager dropped her off in front of the small club. She breezed into the place, with her guitar in its case. She plugged into the house amp, and began to play. I had a moment of envy, then, for itinerant folkies whose lives involve dropping into an evening, sharing simple acoustic songs with people, and then departing in an older model American car.
It's a purity thing, I suppose. One can pull out the acoustic guitar, strum a bit, and sing a lyric that says what one really thinks and believes. One is liberated from the mundane cares of the day, if only for a moment. One has one's guitar, and perhaps one of those various sliding things that makes it sound funny, and a pocketful of lyrics about love lost and causes worth fighting for.
I have had times in my more mundane professional life which involve extensive travel, and I know the flip side--laundromats in strange towns, eating food that is not good for one because one is too rushed and tired to go out, and that sense of not-being-home. Unlike musicians, though, lawyers on the road are not approached by devoted fans, and their days are taken up less with sound checks than with sitting in stuffy conference rooms.
But my Inner Folk Singer calls out to me, sometimes, from within a persona that this very moment is also thinking about going to the Asian market, buying fresh squid, and then going to the prairie ponds to fish, a series of wins at on-line chess, whether to spend a few more hours in the office, my irritation at myself for being upset (or, more precisely for showing my upset) over a letter I got about a ticket I'd already paid, and my need to send cards and letters of holiday warmth and common friendship to all and sundry.
The Inner Folk Singer is not concerned with such mundanity. He just wants to play a guitar (or, hipper to my mind, a baritone ukelele), and sing lyrics about peace and that funny thing he saw on the way to the show and the way life is funny in general.
I like it when folk singers are just like the people next door, except they sing with more confidence and don't put inflated Santas in their yard. I like, for instance, the Lavin lyric about John Lennon's death, which death shocked us all one college dorm day a December decades ago. Her song went:
"Every time I see the Dakota
I think about that night
Shots rang out, an angry crowd,
a man losing his life,
well, it's something we shouldn't dwell upon
but it's something we shouldn't ignore.
Too many good men have been cut down--
let's pray there won't be any more".
To me, being able to share with people a sincere, worthwhile thought, even if it is not an earth-shattering insight, that's a worthwhile thing to do. This manifests for me, of course, in this weblog fascination, but my Inner Folk Singer wants more.
I want to be able to strum in a darkened room, where people nod their heads as I say something that connects. I want to have funny stories, like the one Sara Hickman (www.sarahickman.com) put on her website about having the censors reject her chosen song right before she went on Johnny Carson, and having to speedily arrange another she had not practiced with her band in five minutes.
I wonder if it's nothing more than a longing to be hip and "famous in the Right Way". It's a curious sort of vanity--to wish to be a person whom people know and respect in a low-key kind of way.
But it's not just about fame (and with folk singers, it certainly is not about money). It's about a purity of living. A liberation from responsibility. It's about being able to spend days on end just pontificating over a three chord strum.
But it occurs to me that I want the image, but not the reality. I certainly don't want to spend hours on end learning the guitar. I took years of piano lessons, and found that I am roughly as musical as a box of rocks. Indeed, when I do my own recording of fun things, I tend to make music with boxes of rocks, kazoos and other things which do not really involve music so much as sound. I love sound-as-sound. I pull out my autoharp a couple of times a year, and sing along to "Red River Valley" and "Greensleeves" and "Amazing Grace and "House of the Rising Sun". I do not sound like Judy Collins, Gene Autry or Muddy Waters. I guess I'm not a folkie at all, really.
Even as I say that, though, I will say that I plan to record a CD in 2004 featuring folkie songs rather than noise, and sell it on eBay and maybe even be one of the cast of millions with a CD on the web.
But I really don't want to do the time for the crime. I don't want to practice incessantly--I just want my Inner Folkie to be micro-wave-able, to just pop out of the package and "presto!", I'm It. I'm totally It, for free.
But I have learned that in life that while the very best things in life may be free, so many worthwhile things require work to achieve. There are no guarantees. I imagine hundreds of folkies who can't make a living at it, longing for a gig they don't play for free at the local caffeine den. For that matter, I know young lawyers, praying for a break, when they can do "real" law on "big issues" and save the world, but in fact finding that first job is daunting.
My goal, therefore, is no longer to receive the modest adulation and inner cool for free, but to be willing to work for the things I want. I have a different goal, though, that is just as important. I want to leave behind that part of me that insists that I cannot achieve anything. It's the worst form of vanity--"I'm so important that my efforts, more than anyone else's, will be futile. Nothing will ever work for me". I'm proud that I've taken many modest steps in the past four years to leave this attitude behind. This weblog has been wonderful as a vehicle to spark myself to do things I "always meant to do".
But I do look longingly at life as a five paragraph essay. The best folk singers always seem to me to have topics and subject lines and to live their lives with a cleanliness and truth that I, raiding the mini-Snickers at work, don't really achieve. I think it's a kind of purity I'm seeking. Perhaps that's too easy. Perhaps it's a longing to leave behind the gray areas, and to fight only evil orcs.
I have this Inner Folk Singer inside, you see, who in my imagination is pure and knowing, in tune and in rhyme. He probably has something to say about love and peace and hope. He ignores the mundanities, and always says the right things. He probably has an MFA in poetics, and is on a first name basis with Tom Waits, who doesn't get the Inner Folkie at all. But as much as I fancy my Inner Folkie will appear, guitar in hand, and serenade, I suspect instead I must accept the complexity of things as they are, and do what I can and must someplace off the coffee shop stage.