Not a lot was said then about Pete’s musical younger half-brother, Mike Seeger. Now that Mike is gone, he will be missed and remembered. And not just for his central part in the great Folk Revival or the New Lost City Ramblers.
David Carradine had a colorful career as an actor, far beyond his iconic TV role as a Chinese mystic in the Old West, and he was just reasserting himself as a musician when his life ended.
And just before completing this, word arrived that Les Paul had died at age 94.
“…any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
~ John Donne, 1624
Ultimately, it’s always about the individual person, the uniqueness of each of us, and in the case of artists and musicians, how they shared their special gifts with us. For the Ancient Greeks, it was all about being remembered.
We’ll look at that in terms of those we have so recently lost from the folk music community, and how a tangible reminder can sometimes help perpetuate the presence of the artists’ gifts after they are gone.
Each of us has the power to influence people beyond anything that is obvious. A recent L.A. performance by a famous folk star, one who performs globally, brought interaction with numerous local folkies, and frankly, left a bad taste. It appeared that she didn’t even care much whether her band was accommodated in their needs to get themselves, their instruments and gear to the airport, compared with her desire not to wait for anyone. There was more, none of which mitigates the sorry incident. But the point is, small things can leave a lasting impression, and diva-like behavior is not well-received in the folk world, nor should it be.
Compare that with the story Frank Hoppe shared on his radio show, “Bluegrass, Etc.,” about his brief interaction with the late Mike Seeger. Frank had just brought the news to many of his listeners that Mike had succumbed to his health challenges with leukemia on August 7, at age 75, and there was an outpouring of desire to hear recorded tracks of multi-instrumentalist Mike’s highly regarded music.
Frank told his story, on-air, and then wrote it for us:
“One summer about 15 years ago, I went to the Old-Time Radio conference in Mt. Airy [North Carolina]. There were meetings and workshops, but little jamming and no scheduled dancing. In an effort to remedy this, I cast about for folks who would be interested in an impromptu contra dance – it might have been squares, I’m not sure. My recruiting effort achieved critical mass when Mike Seeger and his wife enthusiastically embraced the possibility. We danced on the stage of an auditorium where the conference was being held. He called [the dance] and I danced with his wife.”
Frank continues, “Mike was incredibly welcoming and inclusive, something I’ll never forget. It seemed like playing music and dancing were two means for connecting with people. This personal connection was in many respects more important than the means he employed in achieving the connection. It’s a lesson I’ve tried to be mindful of ever since. I only met him that one time but he made a deep and lasting impression on me. I will miss him.”
We can read the obits and learn how Mike Seeger was a major influence on young Bob Dylan. But it’s sure good to know he was someone we really would have liked.
When word arrived from Bangkok that David Carradine had been found dead in his hotel room, the news was a shock to many who knew him. He had returned to making music and was building an enthusiastic fan base who liked his music, beyond those who simply knew his celebrity. Though I didn’t really know him, he liked the idea of appearing with his guitar for a performance-interview on “Tied to the Tracks” late this year, and we’ll never know what he might have shared with us.
He had, for such a short time, established a new presence on the music scene. That may have begun when self-professed folk-rock-country-pop musician Trevor McShane made a video in 2007, and David was in it, with an acting cameo (it’s on YouTube, as yet undiscovered by the masses, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPF39psbcVI).
More recently, David was becoming a regular with Sharon Benson’s band, Soul Dogs, and when he added other players, they were sometimes billed as David Carradine & the Cosmic Rescue Team. They performed in February in L.A. at the Conscious Life Expo.
It was all so promising, the name so apropos, so consistent with his 2004 statement in which he acknowledged his past boozing and drug use, and told a reporter that it was all behind him, and that was the last time he would ever need to face questions about it. He cited his personal “regeneration” and “renaissance.”
David’s death was a blow to band mate Sharon Benson. She told us, “I’m still trying to get a handle on the reality that my Spirit Brother ‘DC’ has entered the realm of the invisible… my dear, brilliant, talented, barefoot legend, friend o’ mine. To appease the emotional roller coaster ride, I go for walks with my dog, sit and reflect, reminisce, and once and a while, find myself singing some of David’s songs, which just keep coming up and giving me comfort.”
Sharon continues, “I thought about canceling the upcoming shows that were booked for Soul Dogs (aka The Cosmic Rescue Team). I just wasn’t sure I could handle it yet. I know now that DC would not want that. He wants us to continue on and play hard! Thank you DC, for taking me on one hell of a great ride!”
So, did Sharon have any reason to suspect that her band mate was in trouble? She says, “Regarding the conflicting stories in the media, from my perspective, I can say that David was happy about his current film work, and excited to finally have his brother Bobby in The Cosmic Rescue Team, making his music and band the best ever. We had upcoming gigs, a new five-song CD ready to be released, and new CRT website just being constructed (http://www.davidcarradineandthecosmicrescueteam.com). He called me a few days before all this happened to make sure that I had booked our travel arrangements for our annual July 4th gig in upstate New York, and he was thrilled that Bobby would be joining us again. He was always happiest when he was working and that was certainly in place.”
She concluded, “Life is precious. I invite you to use this experience to celebrate life, live your dream, and embrace your memories. Right now, these words from DC’s 1974 song Set Me Free, seem to say it all…
set me free
from all this weight
they’ve laid on me
put me out to pasture
let me go
let me go
don’t tell me no stories
don’t read me no rhymes
don’t tell me no stories
about the restless times we’re in
just set me free
Decades earlier, David Carradine had forever endeared himself to folk fans. We asked Ronny Cox, whose new album is reviewed elsewhere in this edition, to share some memories of working with David in 1976 on Bound for Glory, where Carradine played Woody Guthrie and Cox was his musical sidekick.
Ronny told us, “Being in Bound for Glory was one of the true joys of my life. It seemed to be the perfect confluence of art, music, politics. Humanity and heart. Hal Ashby was, for my money, the great American filmmaker of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Couple that with a wonderful screenplay about my own personal hero, Woody Guthrie, and the tumultuous Dustbowl ‘30s – incredible music and a company of actors led by David Carradine that has seldom been matched.”
He continues, “So many things about Bound for Glory makes it, in my estimation, one of the great films… Haskel Wexler’s wonderful photography – he won the Academy Award – David’s incredible portrayal of Woody – and the music. Ah, the music! No one writes music that cuts straight to the heart, or to the funny bone, or to the social injustices of the world like Woody did. At once, patriotic, but chiding us all to do better.”
What about working with David Carradine? “I’ve always felt it was David’s finest performance in a very, very distinguished career. Woody was a complex man, full of contradictions, and David navigated through it to give us a charming, exasperating, pig-headed genius that was Woody.”
Ronny Cox has fond memories of the director, as well: “Even though Hal Ashby had so many iconic films in the ’70s and ’80s, I also thought Bound for Glory was one of his very best. He was the most giving and generous director I have ever worked with. As I’m sure everyone knows, films take months to shoot and it’s necessary to shoot ‘take’ after ‘take’ to get it right. I can honestly say, Hal made me, and every other actor on the film, feel as though I had never done a bad ‘take.’ You’d finish a scene and Hal would come to you and say, ‘That was GREAT!!!…. wanna do it again?’ Hal and David… both gone now… I think I’ll go pick up a copy of Bound for Glory and watch as they do their magic.”
We take for granted our privilege to live in an age when performances are preserved in so many forms, whether cyber-digital, film, CD, or until recently, vinyl record, tape, or wax cylinder. Such tangible reminders are sometimes powerful for their ideas as much as their presence in our lives.
I was fortunate on July 8 to hold in my hands Woody Guthrie’s guitar. I had a two-hour lunch with a man who owns 30 radio stations. Before we went to his favorite gourmet French restaurant, he gave me the tour of the L.A. operation. And there was a most memorable moment along the way.
He had told me, only weeks earlier, that he has Woody Guthrie’s guitar. He unlocked a closet, and out it came, in its beat-up old case. It’s quite a relic, and yes, it has been authenticated by Arlo, himself.
It was a cheap guitar in its day, making it fancy in an understated but archaic way now. It has a white pearlescent fret board (the whole fret board). Farther down, Woody had lightly carved his name in the top of the body, along with simple, carved scrollwork. And deep inside, he had written, in pencil, “Woody Guthrie, OK.” You can get the light just right to look down there, and see how Woody held the short stub of pencil to write blindly and with a steep upward bend of his wrist.
At some point, the guitar had been dropped, and the results were catastrophic. The body exploded, separated completely around its circumference – i.e. the back fell off, leaving jagged rims of sides attached to the separated top and bottom. That’s what led to Woody parting with it. It’s repaired, and the luthier worked his magic in a way that preserves a visible record of what happened. Wholly appropriate, since that helps tell the story of an instrument with countless tales to tell.
How many times did that guitar play This Land Is Your Land and Plane Wreck at Los Gatos, and hundreds of songs known and unknown to us now? What tunes might it have imparted to all those sets of lyrics that remain in the archive as words with no melodies known to us, but melodies it may once have played, even as Woody was writing them – as songs, and not just disembodied lyrics?
Holding that guitar, so much was so present, so immediate, a moment for the life memories book. It was a rush that combined a sense of joy and caution and reverence for a sacred artifact, all of that with the sense of history, the exhilaration of trying to comprehend all of it, all at once. There was the quintessential thrill of contact with the centrally essential tool of an artist and spokesman of the people, one whose past continues to shape and influence so much of our outlook.
There was a sense of what is yet possible and of things that should, and should not, characterize or have a place in the way our world is run. It was a tactile reminder of the ethereal and unique and profound power of words set to music – not the awful disposable pounding pop that passes for music in the age of the short attention span – but the ever-present potential energy to lift the soul and awaken the highest aspirations of humanity.
Even now, it requires restraint not to jam all that into a run-on sentence that seeks to distill and impart the meaning, the sheer impact, of those brief few minutes. Could holding Orpheus’ harp hold more meaning, in our time? It was an epiphany, a profound remembrance and realization renewed that the greatest thrill does not require an occasion for white knuckles and hyperventilation, but one that imparts meaning. And there it was, in that sublime moment of holding and strumming and hearing the still-clear and resonant voice of that battle-scarred old guitar…
You can read Larry’s Acoustic Americana Music Guide with its extensive descriptions of upcoming folk-Americana and acoustic renaissance performances, and its companion, the Acoustic Americana Music News; both are updated frequently at http://acousticamericana.blogspot.com. He contributes regularly to No Depression, at http://community.nodepression.com/profile/TiedtotheTracks. His acoustic Americana radio show, Tied to the Tracks, enters national syndication this summer. Contact Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org .