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I think I could turn
Edgar Cayce, my mother's favorite psychic, was commissioned to do a "life reading" of me when I was six weeks old. In it, he forecast my future as "one that will be tempered with song, music, those things having to do with nature." I never saw or knew of the prediction until I was twenty-five years old, and by then, the course of my life was well underway.
I experienced the house in which I was born as a daily symphony. It was built on the corner of an intersection in north-west Detroit, an area still mostly farmland in the late 1930s. The modest-sized house had three small bedrooms, a small living room, dining room, kitchen, one-and-a-half baths, and a den which served as a library.
My room was located in the back of the house above the kitchen. It was there that the rhythm of Krause and creature life embedded itself in my memory. Open windows on both sides of the corner room let in the early morning sounds of mourning doves, frogs, wood warblers, cardinals, chickadees, vireos, robins, starlings, and crickets from the nearby fields. Inside the house at dawn, doors would creak and snap shut, plumbing would spring to life from the bathroom down the hall, and pots, plates, and silverware would rattle with the same reassuring timbre each morning from the kitchen below. Throughout the day, the women my parents hired to help clean and care for me and my sister went about their tasks, each establishing her own unique ambient performance in the process. At first, my parents hired German refugees to work for us. Then, soon after the war began, Camille, an African-American woman, was hired, and she remained with our family for many years.
There was no local preschool and few kids in the neighborhood of whom my parents approved, so I generally stayed by myself, playing in my room with small musical instruments, a marvelous train set by Lionel, Erector sets, model airplanes, or science kits. But mostly, I just listened for the muffled sounds of the daily routine coming from the washing machine or the mangle in the basement, the rush of air through the heating grates, the whirring of the old Hoover vacuum, and the gentle humming of Camille as she went about her tasks. Sometimes, during a mid-week afternoon, when my mother tucked me away for a nap, sounds of laughter and conversation from her regular canasta game would wart upstairs to the room where I lay wide awake, trying to make some sense of the sounds from the living room world below.
My parents were very strict about our behavior during mealtimes. Periodically, I was sent to my room or into the kitchen to eat with Camille for my misbehavior during dinner. Even though I felt ashamed by the punishment, I also felt relieved from having to endure the strict discipline at the table. When sent to my room, I'd lie on the floor until bedtime, vaguely aware of time only by the changing light outside and the retrograde sounds as the house was put to sleep. The whip-poor-will, bullfrog, and crickets in the adjacent field, the last flushes of the toilet and running water in the sink, the final creak of a door hinge, and the snap of a latch as the door to my parents' bedroom closed for the night were the codas for each day.
At times, before putting me to bed, my dad or mom would read me a bedtime story. But it was always the rhythmic pulse of a cricket or the voice of a distant nightjar that would lull me to sleep. In that way, I was first drawn to the sounds of the natural world, which made me feel that all was well and safe in mine. Sometimes, just before drifting offs, I'd imagine having conversations with these mysterious creatures who lay just outside the grasp of my tiny hands.
My parents were terrified of animals. They were especially alarmed by the dirt and diseases creatures carried. "Why can't we have a dog (or a cat, or a hamster) like other kids?" my sister and I would ask over and over.
"They're dirty!" my mother would sniff, quickly adding, "If you want to clean 'em, you can have 'em."
My parents sensed unseen ferocity in animals, even in the tamest beast. My mother would pull me close to her whenever a neighborhood dog approached too closely. Both she and my dad were too stalwart to express their fear verbally, but their facial expressions and firm grip on my hand were giveaways.
The wildest creatures ever to cross our threshold were goldfish. They were easy to care for and if they died--which most did--cost only a dime to replace. We had an occasional painted turtle, which I would try to provoke into action only to have it retreat stubbornly into its Shell. I soon got bored playing with them, and I'd forget to put them back in their small glass container. They'd escape under the rug or the bed, never to be seen alive again, but ultimately recovered by their decaying smell after a few weeks.
Instinctively, I loved animals. But my parents, lacking an understanding of creature life, never showed my sister or me how to properly care for those that came into our lives. And truly wild animals? Not a snake in the world was harmless. Frogs lived in muddy ponds. Birds fouled their own nests and lived in filth. Just look at robins digging in dirt for worms! These vile creatures are certainly not of our world. Early on, I adopted my parents' aversion to animals--something that took me years to overcome.
The first time I took a violin into my hands, it was said, I was able to play a recognizable melody. I was three-and-a-half years old at the time, and my parents were thrilled that a tune could spring from the half-sized instrument they had purchased for twenty-five dollars for their prospective wunderkind. They chose the violin because of my apparent enthusiasm after we attended a Fritz Kreisler concert. As it turned out, my level of musicianship proved to be somewhat below the expectations of both my parents and teachers. Part of the problem was my poor eyesight, which my parents were slow to notice. As a result, I gave some pretty imaginative renditions of Pleyel and simple Bach exercises.
I was, nevertheless, skilled enough to show some talent. I learned mostly by imitating my baffled teacher, who also didn't realize that I was having trouble seeing notes on the page. When composition and solfege classes were added a year later with my teacher's encouragement, my parents thought they had a prodigy on their hands--especially since my teacher was the first principal violinist in the Detroit Symphony. But once again, I was doomed to disappoint everyone. My progress was neither swift nor certain enough. For me, solace appeared somewhere on the other side of the window, outside the room where I was supposed to practice two hours a day. Relegated to my small room in the back of the house, I spent many happy hours alone with the window wide open, listening to sounds coming from myriad creatures I had yet to know.
Whenever I tried to investigate the creature world on my own or asked a question about it, my parents diverted my attention back to music--a more "civilized" preoccupation that they understood. Early on, I learned the intricate songs and calls of some of the birds in the fields around our house; this helped me develop a discriminating ear, making the transition to music fairly easy. When more music lessons were added to what my mentors saw as a "practical" way for a three-and-a-half-year-old to spend time, the melodies of whip-poor-wills were relegated to a low priority. While I tolerated the diversion, I didn't enjoy music at this young age. My training was strictly a rigid form of "Old World" European discipline; I had no musical role model who could show me that music could be passionate or natural.
To escape, I played outside in the fields along with the other neighborhood kids, digging tunnels and searching out rabbits and frogs. Meanwhile, the house was a veritable font of discovery. Any time I was left alone, I would sneak over to the old 78 rpm record player in the living room and begin to explore. I had figured out that the needle in the player arm vibrated as a result of tracking the grooves of the records. I remember trying to run the needle along the grooves in the whorls of my thumbprints to see, if by some miracle, I could produce a musical or bird sound. As I ran my thumb back and forth across the needle, the speaker crackle and sputter was magic to hear. But just when I thought I'd made a discovery, my mother walked in and yelled at me for "ruining" the player.
This was a confusing time for me because, while I knew what I was drawn to, I had no way to express what I felt, and there was no one within the circle of my family who could guide me. But the sounds coming from the field outside my bedroom window left an impression that would continue to interest me whenever I took the time to listen. I was years away from discovering that I could actually create a life around the chirps of birds and the growls of mammals.
and live awhile with the animals ...
When I was young, my dad would take me to local farms to visit the animals, or to the zoo where he would react with the same childlike delight as us kids when the lions roared or elephants swung their heads from side to side. I watched his reactions closely to see what he would do or say. As much as he'd ooh and ah, I always had the feeling that he was comfortable only when standing at some distance from the safety railing. It became clear that this was as close as he ever wished to get to "nature." In those rare moments when he'd let go of my hand and look away, I'd quickly scoot under the railing and stand nose to nose with whatever creature I could. It was then that his face would turn ashen and, in a panic, he would rush forward to pull me back behind the railing. Having both a love and fear of living things, my father passed on to me a conflict so strong it would take many years to resolve it. Still, as we watched the animals together from behind a fence, I felt he was trying to find a way to give me something he yearned to connect to, and yet, he lacked whatever courage or personal history it took to do so. The result for me was a paradoxical perception of seeing the animals, their keepers, and visitors all as prisoners of one kind or another. If he felt the same, he never expressed the irony.
On winter Sunday afternoons or during the few evenings when he Wasn't too tired from working, my father would build a fire in the fireplace, seat me next to him on the floor, and read Dickens, Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau, or Blake late into the night until I curled up and fell asleep, dreaming of the nineteenth century world he loved so well. But this wasn't the world I had to meet each new day. From that there was no escape except in fantasy.
Like the animals I have come to know through my craft, the lyricism and warmth of my dad's voice stayed with me and often helped me endure uncertain times. I vividly recall the readings of Ahab's pursuit of the great whale. Even at five or six it occurred to me that the whale was somehow us. Many years later, I would think of the great white whale when, as director of the operation that led Humphrey the humpback whale from the rivers of the San Francisco Bay back to the Pacific, my mind would return to what seemed like a safer and more secure time.
My father had graduated from law school and practiced law before I was born. But he left his practice to join his father in a thriving bakery supply business when a serious illness kept my grandfather from work for a considerable period of time. My dad's brother-in-law (who died several years ago) also joined the company. Shortly after the war, considerable amounts of money mysteriously disappeared from the company account. An audit made it clear that my uncle was the cause. At the time a recreational gambler, he needed funds to cover his mounting debts. So he misappropriated money from the company, forging my father's signature on checks and seriously threatening the viability of the business. When my uncle was confronted by my parents and given an ultimatum to pay it all back or go to jail, my grandfather sided with his son-in-law who, despite his actions, was allowed to remain with the company.
This surprise decision forced my dad to leave a job he badly needed. Desperate and bewildered, he stopped spending much time with my sister and me. I was ten years old then and still remember how profoundly our lives changed; overnight, it seemed. No longer did we venture to the zoo or to nearby farms to visit the animals. No longer did we take rides into the country in his beige '47 Chevy to see the fall colors or the cider pressing mills. Instead, Dad used to take me with him when he stood in the unemployment lines. A deep malaise settled around us, and my parents began to fight between themselves over issues I could not then understand.
Sometimes I'd eavesdrop while hiding near the top of the stairs, but the meaning of their heated and intense exchanges was often lost to me. Late at night, the harsh whispers would keep me awake and afraid. While I wasn't sure what was happening, and my parents didn't explain anything, I knew something was wrong. Dad became increasingly depressed and detached the more he realized he had lost his livelihood and had been betrayed by his father and his brother-in-law, two men he had respected and trusted. Trying to protect the integrity of our family, my mother stood adamant in the face of these betrayals, refusing to budge from her ever-hardened positions.
Because of my mother's unwillingness to compromise, many of our relatives and friends--particularly on my dad's side--drifted away from us. No longer did we visit our cousins on Sundays or during holidays. Even though there was rivalry between us, they had been fun to play with. I missed their companionship and their world, so different from the more serious and restrained atmosphere of our home. Not having many friends that my parents approved of, my life became even more lonely.
While this was happening, I continually dreamt of living with the creature world. At school I wrote a paper about living with the animals. I fantasized (and wrote) about how peaceful it would be to live underground and to sleep for many months during the year, just like the grizzlies I read about in books. This only made me withdraw further into a world of fantasy and daydreams. I was charmed by thoughts of living in a creature world with protective families of wolves and bears, all the while surrounded by sounds as I sang and reassured these animals through music that I wasn't there to do them harm, thus creating a mystical but wonderful bond.
Despite all the stress and family troubles, my parents hit on an idea they could develop together and struggled to build a small retail business featuring utensils for gourmet cooking and baking. In 1950, with a modest amount of money they had put away for my sister and me, they bought an old jeweler's safe for their fledgling enterprise at the estate auction of a single man who had left no heirs. We were all working at the warehouse they had rented in a depressed part of town--Dad and I were painting and rat-proofing the floor when we heard a sudden, loud scream from my mother. Rushing into the office, we found her sitting on the floor clutching a fistful of cash. With the $10,000 she had discovered in a false bottom of the safe, my parents were able to order a small inventory and purchase a used truck, while still retaining enough money for us to live on for a time.
The tension that had accumulated during my pre-teen years evaporated almost overnight as my parents recovered some measure of vitality, self-esteem, and hope. It marked the beginning of their working relationship together, building a business from scratch that would ultimately prosper. But while it brought our immediate family closer together during those difficult times, for my sister and me, the isolation from the rest of our kin seemed only to increase.
Our middle-class Detroit home was fairly liberal in thought and expression, if not exactly in deed. Dad often spoke in lofty terms of his love of Gandhi as a mentor of peace. As a former attorney, he admired those whom he thought best expressed notions of fairness and justice, often quoting Cardozo, Brandeis, and Darrow as examples. He spoke of unions as being the great social equalizer in our culture, necessary to bring benefits to the "little man." It was only later that I realized just how very conservative and cautious my home environment was in practice. My parents seemed fearful of exploring complex ideas, even to test and play with them. The more I tried to engage them and ask questions beyond the practical--like why we didn't have any non-Jewish or black friends--the more defensive they became, meeting my inquiries with silence or a new subject.
With constant pressure to think as they thought, I often felt somewhat humiliated and made to feel as if I were failing them. They seemed disappointed in my inadequacies, like my mediocre grades in school, my questions that flew in the face of strongly held values, or my actions to find answers for myself. Their responses were often subtle: a pursed lip; a raised eyebrow; arms folded across a chest; a tone of voice. All demonstrated that I had crossed some imaginary line between the proper and improper.
In my own way, I began to show a certain amount of contempt, strongly pressuring them to engage in discussion and debate. Frustrated and unable or unwilling to play along with the challenges, Mom would become infuriated and respond as if I had insulted her. Sometimes she'd just yell. Other times, she would strike me hard with the back of her hand--the one with the large diamond ring. Once, I was thrown down the stairs. It made her feel bad to lose control like that. Hours later, when all had been too quiet for too long, she would come to my room to see if I was all right. I always had the impression it was more to see if she was forgiven. She was.
By the late forties, the dirt road bordering the south side of our house had been paved, and traffic increased to the point where accidents frequently occurred day and night. My parents moved me into the bedroom nearest to the street so they could get some needed sleep in my old cater-corner room in the back. Things had changed there, too. Where fields had existed only a few years before, houses now stood; the birds were long gone, their songs replaced by muffled sounds of radios and new televisions the neighbors had purchased--their windows and a brick wall not ten feet from where I used to gaze across fields that stretched, it seemed, for miles.
I didn't mind the room change so much at first. The new room was a little bigger. However, the sounds of creature life were replaced by constant traffic noises. During these turbulent times in my childhood, I remember how the music of Bessie Smith, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Leadbelly, Burl Ives, and Marais and Miranda opened up a world that temporarily carried me beyond the limits of our tiny piece of Detroit property. Because this was not my parents' favorite music, I could only listen to these records when my parents were out of the house.
It was in the world of such disparate sounds that I found some sense of well-being and confidence, although it was clear to me then that some component was missing. It would take some time before I finally began to piece the puzzle together.
they are so placid and self-contained,
While the music we heard as a family was often restricted to the classics, the influence of radio and the records passed along by family friends somehow made my adolescent life bearable. By the early fifties, before my early teens, most of my musical interests focused on jazz, pop, blues, and occasional folk music being performed locally. "Amazing Grace" was one of the first tunes I learned outside of the prescribed music in our family. Sung by Camille, the tune often inspired me to skip Sunday Hebrew classes and sneak into her church just to hear the choir perform. The sheer energy of gospel music brought joy and excitement to my life as a very timid and self-absorbed child. I was enchanted by those moments.
My musical roots and interests were fairly eclectic. By the mid-forties, some friends of my parents, whose house we would frequently visit, introduced me to jazz, theater, and pop music with a passion I had never experienced at home. Three things drew me to jazz as a kid: it was much less stiff and controlled than the music my parents endorsed; it seemed to be much more visceral and therefore natural; and, finally, it was something I understood intuitively that my parents didn't, which was liberating because it gave me special territory that I could call my own.
By the time I was thirteen, the violin had become an ordeal. So I quit and tried a number of other instruments: cello, bass, viola, harp--pretty much all the strings--until one summer at a camp in Ontario, I heard someone play the guitar and thought I had gone to heaven! I studied hard and quickly learned every style of the time--rock, jazz, classical--and actually became a fair reader and performer. The music of Bertha Chippie Hill, Louis Armstrong, Earl Fatha' Hines, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Bix Beiderbecke, and Bessie Smith were all familiar to me before I entered ninth grade. By the time I was fifteen, I was playing guitar and amplified ukulele in a dance band and having a great deal of fun.
The guitar, of course, made my parents crazy. For one thing, they viewed it as a blue-collar instrument--a class they definitely were striving to exceed--and certainly not something to have fun with. Second, it was taking all my time; I wanted nothing to do with the family. When they went out to dinner, I wanted to stay home, listen to rock and roll or Andres Segovia, and practice. Nothing they could offer was more enticing than playing guitar. It was the first thing I could do completely on my own.
My high school was located in the northwest section of Motown. I spent most of my time outside of school bopping down the street in a chopped and blocked '51 powder blue Ford convertible--certainly not mine--with the old tube radio blaring Bill Haley and the Comets or Bo Diddley. The local deejays of the time (like Robin Seymore, for whom the song, "When The Red, Red, Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along" was written) called out tunes that made the playlists. When jazz performers came to town, a bunch of us would gather outside the local clubs, like the Minor Key on Livernois, pressing our ears to the back doors because we were too young to get in. Sooner or later, the bouncer would send us on our way; but sometimes, when his mood was right or when the crowd was light, he'd crack open the door just enough to let us hear performances of some of the all-time greats, such as the Modern Jazz Quartet, Eric Dolphy, or Miles Davis.
Usually, I was able to get my musical fixes only from records--those recordings that were passed along by friends who were finished listening or bored with the stuff, or when I had a birthday. My parents didn't have enough money to spend on "frivolous" purchases like "unusual" music. "Not practical!" my mother would sniff, adding nothing more substantial.
My parents had only a limited interest in music other than the albums they bought or programs selected on the radio. Some of their friends and a few of my high school buddies had a much wider musical range. I guess my mom's response was more academic--endorsing only the music we "should" listen to and know. Bach or Beethoven were at the top of the list; Chopin and Rachmaninov were her romantic favorites because of their beautiful melody lines. She never expressed any particular desires for other styles. Neither parent ever suggested we go hear jazz, rock and roll, or any of the pop artists who frequently came to town to perform. My parents disliked Elvis Presley when he burst on the scene. Even Harry Belafonte was looked upon by my mom with a combination of desire and suspicion: "Why does he have to wear his shirt open lake that?" she hissed at my dad, who sat on the couch, puffing on his cigar and staring straight ahead. My dad, on the other hand, although his tastes were fairly limited, seemed to respond to the spirit of music and occasionally would even express some emotion over a great performance. It was the enthusiasm of their few music-loving friends that added the necessary juice to my teenage life.
Sometime in the early sixties, my parents' jazz-collecting friends, then retired and divesting themselves of extra belongings, packed the remainder of their collection of rare 78s and shipped it to me. One day, a large semi-trailer pulled up outside my small Brooklyn Heights apartment and dumped a pallet of large, heavy cartons on the sidewalk. To this day, I still haven't listened to all of this material, although much of it has been cleaned up and transferred to compact disc. It is a remarkable accumulation: music from Louisiana bayous dating back to the twenties, blues, early Armstrong, Klezmer music, Burl Ives, Marais & Miranda, Leadbelly, and even some jazz performances Doris Day did when she was a teenager that were far more exciting than her later work.
Because some of the collection had been given to me over the years beginning in the mid-forties, as a teenager in the mid-1950s, I already had a strong hunch that there was much to be discovered in what was then called "ethnic" music. It was also a time when folk music was becoming the rage, first popularized by Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Josh White, Belafonte, and the Kingston Trio. Some of it was deemed politically "safe." Some of it was seen as more dangerous--like songs containing ideas that there might be better ways to connect with people and our environment than by killing, maiming, or polluting--stirring indignation from some quarters and discomfort in my parents.
My family would frequently travel to Manhattan by overnight train. For me it was the heart of magic--a fierce contrast to the flat, uninspired environment of Detroit. It was on one such trip, when I was seventeen, that I first saw the Weavers during their 1955 Town Hall concert, the first of many comeback events. The offer to take me to a Weavers concert was quite unusual for my parents--a departure from the normal and safe classical performances they usually dragged me to. I felt their apprehension but was also deeply touched by their outreach.
The air in the hall was thick with excitement and expectation. When the Weavers began to sing, the atmosphere was palpable. I couldn't believe that their live appearances could exceed the quality of the recordings I had all but worn out at home. In spite of Joseph McCarthy's attempts to silence members of the group, they had managed to persevere and survive with their freshness and political passion intact. The crowd was on its feet most of the time. Even standing on my seat, I rarely caught a glimpse of the group that night. But I sure as hell could hear the music, and I can still recall the feeling of love and energy in the air that night. And for a fleeting moment, I even imagined myself on the stage, guitar in hand, singing with them.
While a student at the University of Michigan in the mid-fifties, I joined the Folklore Society, which immediately caused me to be blackballed from the fraternities I had mistakenly thought I might like to join. Those of us in the Folklore Society aggressively sang folk songs and hustled dates with our guitars. I played the instrument as hard and as loud as I could--and not necessarily very well, either. But apparently just well enough to improve my social life. We had weekly meetings--"hoots"--and occasionally split off into smaller performing groups to play at fraternity parties and other campus functions. Our youthful energies were largely spent strutting for attention: who was the best guitar performer, who could sing the most French or Spanish songs, or who was the most radical, the most angry, the most victimized, the most underprivileged, and, of course, the most "hip." The men soon discovered that these displays had a tendency to attract women--the not-too-subtle subtext of most of what was going on.
Among the members of the Society was Al Young, then a published poet, short-story writer, and essayist, not to mention a talented vocalist, guitar player, and performer; Bill McAdoo, then a devoted Marxist; and Joe Dassin, son of Jules (director of the film, Never on Sunday), a singer and raconteur. With each of us expressing various degrees of political passion, we felt that our music would help change a world we saw as corrupt; several of us laid our asses on the line, traveling south to engage in voter registration, or to Washington to address anti-nuclear issues, disarmament, and Cuba. In later years, Al Young became a Stegner Fellow, taught at Stanford, and published several novels and books of poetry. McAdoo became a colleague of Malcolm X's, only to end up later on Wall Street as a broker. And Dassin, after enjoying a successful career in France, committed suicide one night in his Paris apartment.
A few in the Society began to assume the mantle of being the most hip and politically relevant. This meant, of course, enviously turning against the very things in the folk genre that were gentle and well-motivated: specifically against spokespeople with some kind of moral center who were finally getting attention for their art. Peer pressure demanded that we view these important folk musicians as not imaginative enough, not "folk" enough, not "ethnic" enough, or not whatever-came-to-mind enough. We also needed to create objects of scorn. In this way, the Weavers and Seeger became targets for the most radical elements of the Folklore Society. No one in his or her right mind would mention the Kingston Trio or the Limelighters in a positive light. Many in the group would never be seen at their concerts. The music itself had little to do with the issue; the musicians were targeted simply for making money.
Some fellows in the Folklore Society spent a good deal of time defending their political turf with fist fights. Mostly, the battles were about which songs were most politically relevant or how they should be performed. We sang of peace and harmony and holding hands around the world, but would still end up beating on each other about the most inane things. "If I Had a Hammer" was written by capitalists, and by singing it, you were so labeled. "Midnight Special," on the other hand, because it sprang from the oppressed, showed your affinity to more substantive issues. "I'll squash you!" McAdoo screamed one day as an unwitting white fellow dared to play a C major 7th chord on his guitar, thus desecrating the sanctity of "Midnight Special." Stepping outside the room, they duked it out and both disappeared for the rest of the evening.
Then there were political discussions. Middle-class whites in the Folklore Society were made to feel inadequate for not having suffered quite enough. But some of us saw through all this bullshit pretty early in the game and moved on to more interesting matters--like the wonderful varieties of music that were beginning to emerge from everywhere around us.
A few of us from the core members of the Society formed a performance group. It consisted of Al Young, Bill McAdoo, Joe Dassin (who sometimes appeared and sometimes didn't, depending on the current state of his female companionship), and me. Despite all the heartache brought about by ego trips and ignorance, the music prevailed, and we generally rose above our differences when onstage. The music had the effect of calming and reassuring us, and we always felt better for having performed it together. To keep active, we were constantly forced to look for new material. It was a time when wonderful music from the American South and Africa was beginning to have a voice--even appealing to uptight academics in the music department.
I recall no particular feeling of lightness then, just intensity. The songs of the birds had become only a distant echo. I was distracted by what I was told I should be doing with my life by my parents, professors, friends, lovers, and the media. My slow coming of age was painful: music was the bandaid.