Nancy's Travelblogue

... there isn't a train I wouldn't take, no matter where it's going. -- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Location: California, United States

Thursday, March 31, 2005


I knew Texas music was big, but didn’t know quite how big and diverse until this week. I am attending the ARSC (Association for Recorded Sound Collections) this week in Austin. The Association is devoted to the preservation of all sound, that is, oral histories, speeches, sounds in nature, etc., but let’s face it, most sound that is recorded and preserved is musical, and a whole lot comes from Texas.

Our first speaker was David Oliphant, professor of literature at UTA and de facto Texas jazz historian. His thing is discography, and he put forth a Texas-size list of local musicians (supplemented by me. ) Add to the list if you can. Here they are: Jack Teegarten, Teddy Wilson, Bud Johnson, Eddie Durham, Kenny Durham, Red Garland, Ornette Coleman, Tee Carson, Scott Joplin, Janis Joplin, Gene Austin, T-Bone Walker, Gene Autry, Flaco Jimenez, Willie Nelson, Buddy Holly.

The next speaker was John Wheat, archivist for the University of Texas, Austin Center for American History Sound Archive (formerly Center for Texas History). Here are two of the musical gems in his archive, available to the public for listening:

* Janis Joplin singing at Threadgills, then and now an Austin hangout, in 1962. Janis came from the Gulf Coast and studied briefly at UT. Artsy and independent even then, she did not endear herself to Austinites, except the very small Bohemian crowd that accumulates around any university, even Austin in the early 60s. She sang the Appalachian ballad Silver threads and golden ribbons.

* A Leadbelly improvised song , recorded at the Lomax family (read that John and Allan) home in Austin, precisely at 400 E. 34th Street. Leadbelly hung out at the Lomax family home after his stint in a Louisana prison, but before his New York career as a folksinger. Bard that he is, Leadbelly improvised the sone, mentioning all the members of the Lomax family, the address, the city, and where they were going to and coming from.

Finally Chris Strachwitz and Tom Diamont spoke on the Strachwitz Frontera Collection, a collaboration between the Arhoolie Foundation and UCLA. Chris’ Arhoolie Records is right down the road from my home in the Bay Area, and I’ve admired his work for years, so it was fun to get to hear him speak about it. He has been collecting music from the Texas/Mexico borderlands region for fifty years, much of it unique, and had gotten to know the music, the people and the culture enough to become part of it. Be sure to check the digital archive (still in progress), made from Chris’ collection of 60,000 recordings of Frontera music.

We had a short tour of the Austin City Limits Studio at the UT campus. I didn’t realize this program, running more than 35 years, is a low budget, homegrown operation. Even now they only present musicians who are touring through the area, since they don’t have a budget to subsidize travel. The chief engineer told us that the programming has shifted away from Texas music, toward mainstream, popular genres. Such a shame. The programming direction has also changed recently, towards featuring more commercially successful musicians.

In terms of live music in Austin, we went one night to the Broken Spoke (another Austin musical destination) and heard Debra Peters, who plays the button accordion and sings country ballads with a feminist twist.

I’ve been worried about Austin based singer and yoddler Don Walser. I got word that he is alive although his health is deteriorating. He performs occasionally in Austin, so if you are in Austin and want a treat, look for him in the [URL]

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Reading in the family

Love of the printed word runs through my genes. My grandfather was punished as a child when he was caught reading on his family’s rocky farm in northeast Scotland. If he was reading he wasn’t working and work was the bottom line in his stern, evangelical family. But he read anyway, clandestinely.

His son, my father told me the only year in his childhood he got any education was the year he stayed out of school recovering from scarlet fever. He discovered the classics that year and devoured them, and kept right on reading all his life. Now he is in a Skilled Nursing environnment, and can’t do much except read. The books and magazines he chooses bring him solace in old age, and allow him to connect with the world on his own terms.

As a librarian, I’ve taken this inherited predisposition a step further and made the selection and care of books my life work. Every day I walk through the stacks in the library in California where I work , interacting with my friends, the books. My favorite sections of the Dewey system are the early 900s, old travel accounts; 979, local history; 792.8, dance; 779, photography; and of course fiction. And yes, I do read the books. My schedule is hectic these days, but the one thing that never gets shortchanged is my hour of reading before I go to sleep.

My two sons have taken it one step further – from the consumption of the printed word to its creation. One of them is a scientific editor who crafts microbiology information into language for the average human being to understand. My other son writes short stories and has translated a novel, that is, when he’s not writing legal briefs.

The book I’m reading now lives in the 973.049 section, ethnic groups in the United States. West of Kabul, east of New York : an Afghan American story is Tamim Ansary’s memoir of growing up in Afghanistan with an Afghan father and an American mother, and of defecting to the United States with his family as a teenager (minus his father, you must read it to get that story) and his experience with one foot in Afghanistan and the other one in the United States. It’s easy to read, fascinating and very relevant.

Here is an excerpt from the book (with due credit to Tamim Ansary):

In 1948, when I was born, most of Afghanistan might as well have been living in Neolithic times. It was a world of walled villages, each one inhabited by a few large families, themselves linked in countless ways through intermarriages stretching into the dim historical memories of the eldest elders. These villages had no cars, no carts even, no wheeled vehicles at all; no stores, no shops, no electricity, no postal service, and no media except rumors, storytelling, and the word of travelers passing through. Virtually all the men were farmers. Virtually all the women ran the households and raised the children. Virtually all boys grew up to be like their fathers, and all girls like their mothers. The broad patterns of life never changed, never had as far as any living generation could remember, and presumably never would. People lived pretty much as they had eight thousand years ago.