Friday, February 27, 2009

riding on the MTA with "Charlie"

Let me tell you of a story of a man named Charlie
on that tragic and fateful day
He put 10 cents in his pocket, kissed his wife and family,
went to ride on the MTA...

But did he ever return? No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearned
He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned...

That's the beginning of the classic Kingston Trio song that I grew up singing... and today I got to be a tourist in Boston, and to "ride on the MTA" (although now it's called the "MBTA" - Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority - or just "the T"). In fact, I used Jon Paul's "Charlie Ticket," which is what they call the transit pass (named after the song, of course).

Anyway, a fun day - a ride on the "T" into Back Bay station, a visit to the Boston Public Library (incredible), a walk down "Commonwealth Avenue" (or "Comm Ave as Bostonians say it) to the Public Garden and Boston Common...

Charlie handed in his dime at the Kendall Square Station
And he changed for Jamaica Plain
When he got there the conductor told him "one more nickel"
Charlie couldn't get off of that train!

But did he ever return? No he never returned...

I walked the "Freedom Trail" through historic Boston... don't get me started... it was great...

Now all night long Charlie rides through the station
Crying "What will become of me?
How can I afford to see my sister in Chelsea
Or my cousin in Roxbury?"

But did he ever return? No he never returned...

I can't tell you how much pleasure it gave me to actually see and experience that all those specific place names (Kendall Square Station, Jamaica Plain, Chelsea, Roxbury...) that I've been singing for years are REAL PLACES...

Charlie's wife goes down to the Scully Square station
Every day at quarter past two
And through the open window she hands Charlie a sandwich
As the train comes rumblin' through!

But did he ever return? No he never returned...

And then I also rode the "T" up to Harvard Square and walked around there, soaking up the different kind of energy and being accosted by various Greenpeace street evangelists... good for them...

So you citizens of Boston, don't you think it's a scandal
How the people have to pay and pay?
Fight the fare increase! Vote for George O'Brian!
Get poor Charlie off the MTA!

Or else he'll never return, oh he'll never return...

And then, get this. Tonight I did a house concert, and we closed out the evening with a rousing rendition of this "Charlie on the MTA" song - when else do I get a chance to do this song in concert, with people who would know EXACTLY where and what it's about?

And a man who came to the concert tonight told me that his father used to work for Columbia Records in Boston during the Kingston Trio era. It turns out that when they made up the publicity posters for the song, THIS MAN'S DAD was the one who portrayed "Charlie" in the posters...! What would that have been - 40 years ago?

Can you believe that?!

Anyhow, my day as a "tourist in Boston" is now over, and the pace of this tour is going to pick up dramatically as I'm doing 4 events in the next 4 days, and 9 in the next 11 days. So far it's been a lot of travel, and a little performing. Now it'll be much smaller distances, and a lot more performing.

And not to worry. Despite my obvious passion for - and now personal association with - this song, I don't think I'm in danger of sharing Charlie's fate...

Or else he'll never return, no he'll never return
And his fate is still unlearned.
He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned...


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

journey within a journey within a journey

Tonight I participated in the Ash Wednesday service at Union Congregational Church here in East Walpole, Massachusetts. Starting a new journey - the journey of Lent - in the midst of this journey of rails and songs... which is, of course, only a small part of a journey that's so much longer and larger, and that is itself contained and participating in another that is so much greater still...

And again I find myself overwhelmed by the generous gift - and gifts - of so many companions on this (these) journey(s)... Dan and Terri and Ruth in Minneapolis, and now Abby and Jon Paul and Josiah and Isaac who have opened their homes to me and made me feel so cared for and part of the family... Eugene back home who took the time tonight for a special evening of sports-watching with Matthew whose Dad is too far away...

I may be riding on a single-passenger ticket, but I'm far from traveling alone. A good thing to remember at the beginning of Lent.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

laughing and crying on an eastbound train

... near Rochester, New York.

The reason? Reading Wendell Berry's collection of stories, "That Distant Land."


Now back to work... writing up the reflections to go with the February "delivery of songs," which I hope to post (in February) while I'm in Boston...


Sunday, February 22, 2009

view from the train part 2 (northwestern montana)

Too tired to write tonight. Felt good about the concert in Mountain Lake MN this afternoon. Back on the train Boston-bound tomorrow morning. More soon.


Friday, February 20, 2009

some things i learned in seattle

- 30% of homeless men in Seattle (and apparently this holds true nation-wide) are military veterans. (I had no idea. I wonder how this compares with Canada).

- Jonathan and Melanie and the Seattle Mennonite Church are doing good and important work with the homeless in the Lake City area, where there are very few services available. (SMC hosted my concert last night, and the "price of admission" was a non-perishable food item for the "drop-in" program.)

- A few members of the "drop-in" community on Lake City Way are songwriters. Within seconds of walking in the door, Angel asked me "are you the singer?" and launched into a song she wrote, and Niko spent a good part of the morning entertaining us with songs he's written about, and for, various local people.

- And here's what I'm guessing is the most expensive "home" in the city... it was introduced to me as "the biggest and most expensive single-use facility in North America"... a building that is used 7 days per year... 7 "home games" for the Seattle Seahawks football team...

... a few more minutes to take advantage of the free wireless internet at this coffee shop (it is Seattle, after all!), and then it's "all aboard" the "Empire Builder" for Minneapolis/St. Paul...


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

view from the train part 1 (Jasper to Kamloops)

How is a guy supposed to get any work done - or even any reading - when this is what you're seeing out the window!

That last one is Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. I'm told you don't often get such a clear view.

And if I had a camera ready BEFORE Jasper I could have posted a picture of a mountain that looks exactly like Darth Vader... I kid you not...

Reminds me of the story Elwin told me in Didsbury... that he was listening to an "audio book" version of the King James Bible, read by James Earl Jones. He said that the production quality was so bad, it sounded like the Bible as read by Darth Vader.

I can hear it now... "The gospel according to... LUKE..."


not our finest hour

“... and while all of this was happening, NOT EVEN ONE of these men over here got up to help!”


Let me back up just a bit. Last night a commotion woke me up (yes, fast asleep on the train).

“Hey - watch where you’re going!”

“He fell right on top of that lady! Are you ok?”

“You’ve been drinking.”

“He’s smoking - hey, no smoking allowed in here!”

“Get over there! No, this is my seat. Where’s you’re seat? Get over there!”

“And stop smoking - my son has asthma. I had to take him to the hospital last week...”

You get the picture.

Well, after all that (which, by my groggy estimation, might have taken 2 minutes, with about 3 different voices pitching in, along with the occasional mumble from the man shaking in the aisle), things seemed to settle down and the situation seemed under control. I wasn’t anxious to get involved. I went back to sleep.

To awake this morning to the sounds of a conversation with the VIA rail staff:

“... and while all this was happening, NOT EVEN ONE of these men over here got up to help.” An angry stare around the car.

Let me back up again, a bit further.

It’s a sunny and clear afternoon, and we’re rolling along west of Jasper. How is anybody supposed to get any work done with scenery like this rolling by outside?

“In about 20 minutes, if you turn around and look out the back you’ll have a really good view of Mt. Robson. It’s the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.”

A friendly off-and-on conversation ensued with someone who, it turns out, has worked on the railway all his life... pointing out the different spots where the Fraser, Thompson, and Columbia rivers start their long passage to the sea... telling us how far the salmon swim up the Fraser... an amiable soul on his way to visit his sick mother on Vancouver Island...

... and who a few hours later was squatting in the aisle, eyes glazed and squinting in confusion, sucking hard on a cigarette fragment pinched between shaking fingers.

The VIA attendant continued to listen: “... I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night, I was so worried. I looked for a staff person and couldn’t find any. I thought about shutting myself and my baby in the bathroom... and not even one of these men...”

I guess I should have gotten up and asked if everyone was ok. Or offered to go and search for a VIA employee. I wasn’t thinking about how the others were feeling as much as I was embarrassed for the friendly man I had met that afternoon...

And, of course, I was enjoying my sleep.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

not at home and right at home

The weekend in Didsbury went well - concert on Friday evening, workshop sessions on Friday night and Saturday, worship on Sunday. A moving and humbling experience to reflect with folks about economics and faith, and to hear their stories and questions and wisdom, and to be welcomed in to some very real experiences of pain and struggle and joy.

I continue to find my music most "at home" in congregational settings like this. This is what it's for, and this is where it does its best work.

This seemed even clearer to me after another experience - a lot of fun but for some reason rather disconcerting - at the songwriters open stage at Hulbert's Restaurant in Edmonton last night. This is a favourite and beloved place of Tim Chesterton, a self-described "Anabaptist Anglican" priest who also happens to have an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional British folk tunes, and who, together with his family, generously and graciously opened their home to me last night, and took me to the Sunday Night Open Stage where Tim regularly plays.

A lot of really great musicians - a couple of singer/songwriters with powerful lyrics and a whole bunch with amazing chops on the guitar - and I felt really awkward when I was introduced (with a considerable degree of amazement) as "a FULL-TIME WORKING MUSICIAN!"... as if that's some kind of holy grail, ever-sought but seldom found and never really believed...

This is definitely NOT where my music feels most "at home"... I wasn't sure what to play, so I played "Willowgrove Creek" and "Not for Human Consumption"... and judging by the polite applause and glassy handshakes I felt like they went over like a lead balloon...

Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed the evening, and listening to the different performers play. There is a very special sense of community that has been cultivated there. But it seems very clear to me that this is not where my own musical gift is most "at home"...

Anyway, a highlight this morning was sitting down with Tim and having the doors to the great land of DADGAD tuning opened wide before me... a whole new musical language in which he is fluent and in which I look forward to taking the first baby steps...

And after a delightful day reconnecting with friends here in Edmonton, in a few hours I'll board the train through the mountains to Vancouver. A spectacular ride, by all accounts. I'd better get some sleep.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

bags packed, ready (almost) to go

Tomorrow morning the cross-continental railroad odyssey begins... with a morning flight to Calgary (blush...). Looking forward to the weekend with the Bergthal Mennonite Church in Didsbury, and then off to Edmonton to hop the train to Seattle and then the trek east... although I won't have internet access on the train, I plan to post regularly throughout the tour... stay tuned...


smalltall studio sessions

Just finished the recording sessions for the Year 4 Gather 'Round CD... check out this amazing recording facility... note the tremendous care taken to create a comfortable, informal, homey atmosphere... complete with dishes in the sink... (ok, don't look that closely...)

The sessions at Many Streams were fun too - that's where we recorded the drums, piano, and some guitar and lead vocals.

And how about all those SmallTall Recording Artists? Thanks Mara, Janine, Kenrich, Geralde, Elise, Samara, Susie, Matthew, Julie, Emily, Annika, Aiden, Charlene, Darren, John... it's a delight to make music with you all!


Friday, February 06, 2009

alien worker

Hooray! I'm an "alien worker"!

So says the US Department of Homeland Security, on the P2 Nonimmigrant Worker visa that arrived today.

Which means I'll be able to ride the rails and sing songs south of the border, as planned.

Has a nice ring to it, don't you think? Not a bad descriptor, really...