Sunday, July 31, 2011
I'm also getting geared up for Tuesday's Moth GrandSLAM. I have a story, but I'm starting to feel unsure about it. I have a feeling I won't be thinking about much else between now and Tuesday night. Eep.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Graduation Week at The Old Town School of Folk Music
Last night was my final West African Dance class of the current session, and we had a recital onstage at the Old Town School of Folk Music. The school is housed in a grand building on Lincoln Avenue that was once a library and retains traces of its bookish past; above the stage is a WPA mural underscored by the words "enjoy toys, the world we live in, making airplanes, boats, books tell us of King Arthur, costume and pioneer days, building skyscrapers, electricity."
My fellow classmates and I - six of us in all, got on stage to the rhythm of live djembe drumming, and brought the house down. After spending eight weeks dancing in the studio classroom, it was gratifying to perform in front of an audience, and the group assembled at the Old Town School couldn't have been less judgmental - everyone in the auditorium had to get on stage at some point, making the atmosphere less American Idol and more like talent night at summer camp. We practiced our dance moves in the hallway as a group of musicians rehearsed Will The Circle Be Unbroken, it was a quintessential Old Town School moment.
The six of us stood across from each other on the stage, three on each side, and at the appropriate drumbeat - what our teacher calls "the break," we started moving towards each other in dance formation until we'd found our mark, faced the audience, and moved to the next step. Midway through the dance we formed a circle using dance steps and then moved back to our original spots, a maneuver that wowed the audience. I was standing up front at stage right, and could see the audience - mostly guitar students, with instruments in their laps or in cases sitting next to them. Our dance lasted all of three minutes, and we received a truly raucous round of applause and shouts for our efforts. It was fantastic. Three West African Dance classes performed in a row, ceaseless drumming spurring on one class after the next. After that came the Middle Eastern Belly Dancers in all their jangly, hip-centered self-confidence, the metal disks on their hip scarves bouncing in unison like a school of small, shiny fish.
Next came the guitar classes, who serenaded the audience with the following:
Nancy Sinatra's These Boots Were Made for Walkin';
Neil Young's Harvest Moon (which I sang along to);
Chris Hillman's My Baby's Gone;
The Eurythmics' Here Comes the Rain Again - which, if you've never heard played on acoustic guitar, is something else; and
Brandy Carlisle's Wish I Could Be There Tonight.
The guitar-heavy lineup was broken up by harmonica level one, and a class called "harmonica forever", who played Roll On Weary River and Bob Dylan's Beyond Here Lies Nothing, respectively. They had a backup band supporting them: a mandolin, two guitars, a standing bass and a tambourine, and I decided that if one instrument could follow me around in my daily life to provide a soundtrack to the most mundane of my everyday activities, it would be a standing bass; no other instrument underscores the moment in quite the same way.
Once the harmonica students moved off the stage there were more guitar classes, and picking up on the Dylan theme they started us off with You Ain't Goin' Nowhere, followed by America's Sister Golden Hair, and a song called Ophelia, (I'm not sure who wrote it). The evening closed with a rendition of Stone Temple Pilots Plush, which reminded me of an adage told onstage many Old Town School graduations ago - if you're looking for the definition of folk music, well... that depends on which folks you're talking about.
I sat in the audience and I watched it all; fingers squeaking along guitar strings as they moved from one note to the next, harmonica players hesitating before chord changes, and it reminded me of why I love this place. The first time I ever set foot in the Old Town School of Folk Music was before they moved into the Lincoln Avenue Location. I was visiting a friend who worked on Armitage, saw the Old Town School's music store, and walked in out of curiosity. A concert was about to begin, and the person manning the doors of the concert hall asked if I'd like to take a seat and listen for free; there were empty seats, and the musicians had come all the way from China to perform.
What I saw mesmerized me. The only Chinese music I'd heard up to that point in my life was played on the sound systems of cheap Chinese restaurants. This was different, it was beautiful and enchanting, and unlike anything I'd ever heard before. That's what I love the most about the Old Town School of Folk Music; whether it's a band from Uganda you've never heard of or a headliner that you bought the tickets to months in advance, you hear it in the intimacy of a 300 seat auditorium, and even if it's music you've heard a hundred times before, it becomes new to you.
When you become a student at the school, you become a part of a 50-plus year history of people who picked up an instrument, or decided to learn how to dance, or opened their mouths to sing, and allowed themselves to once again be beginners at something - perhaps for the first time in years. None of the people on stage last night were experts, and none of them were trying to be the best, they were just people who enjoyed learning a new instrument or a new dance and had a chance to get up on stage for three minutes and share it with a roomful of peers. Its one of the best things about Chicago, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
It would be a shame to leave the as yet unperformed story in its dusty little corner of my computer, so I thought I'd publish it here even if I never manage to tell it on stage:
I almost didn't graduate from high school because I failed gym. I'll say that again - I almost didn't graduate from high school because I failed gym. Not calculus or AP French - no, gym.
I went to a tiny Quaker boarding school in Poughkeepsie, a town about 60 miles north of New York City that might qualify as a rust-belt city, but with none of the accompanying cache. A percentage of the student body was on the fast track to success, but it was widely known as a second chance school, and several of my classmates had repeated a year upon entering, or had been given the choice between boarding school or military school.
As boarding schools go, it was pretty lax. There were no uniforms, no football team - only soccer, and it was co-ed. We had dances, but no prom - that went against the Quaker aesthetic of not making people feel bad if they don't have a date - or whatever, I can't remember exactly which tenant of Quakerism is compromised by prom night.
The PE requirement was, to say the least, relaxed. While I'd spent two seasons on the cross country team - becoming a Hudson Valley Athletic League All Star, by the way. I even got a letter, but since the cross country team didn't have jackets I never sewed it to anything.
I was never a great student, I had trouble concentrating on anything that didn't interest me, and had perfected the art of self-sabotage to the point that every semester it seemed I might fail all my classes, but by some miracle of last minute studying I passed. By the spring of my senior year I had developed a serious case of what is sometimes referred to as senior-itis, and the most athletic endeavor I could bring myself to sign up for was Outdoor Club. Yes, we had something called Outdoor Club, and it counted as PE credit. A few times a week the Outdoor Club would load up in a van, drive to some out of the way, picturesque locale in the Hudson Valley, and go for a walk.
And I failed.
I was in my Outdoor Club coach's office, if that's even what his title was, I'm not sure. It was about two weeks before graduation. My family had made arrangements to rent a car and drive up from Brooklyn to watch me graduate under the shade of a 100 year-old oak tree in a ceremony that featured the puppeteer Kevin Clash - best known for bringing Sesame Street's Elmo to life. My coach and I were having what I thought was a friendly conversation. Jack was somewhere in his fifties, he was balding with a monk's fringe of gray hair on the sides of his head, he had a pot belly and all the menacing presence of Santa Claus.
"Well," Jack said, his eyes on an attendance sheet spread out among a pile of other papers on his desk, "it looks like you've missed four sessions of Outdoor Club." It was true, I had. That spring I'd met my first real boyfriend and together we cut class and idled the hours away. By the time I was accepted to college, most of my academics, including Outdoor Club, had fallen pretty low on my list of priorities. Who cared if I wasn't out walking with Jack and the rest of the club? I was so out of here, my life was just beginning, and what kind of a gym class was Outdoor Club anyway?
"Yeah," I said.
"You know the maximum number of absences is two," he said.
"Yeah," I said. As bad of a student as I was, I never made excuses for myself, I took whatever punishment came my way as a result of my bad habits. I spent hours in what was called "special study hall", where all the under-performing kids were sent. We sat together in the dining hall under the supervision of a teacher, who sat at a table grading papers. They didn't care what we did, as long as we didn't leave the room. I spent my time writing notes to my friend Cori. I never did a lick of homework in special study hall.
"Well I'm sorry," Jack said, "but I'm not going to be able to give you a passing grade."
Suddenly the future that I was no longer going to enjoy flashed before my eyes - college, career, family, success - and in its place came a new future, an unpleasant and dark future filled with menial, backbreaking jobs, cigarette smoke and a terrible soundtrack - songs like Irene Cara's What a Feeling.
"But Jack, I..." I stammered, and the rest became in incomprehensible blur of half-choked pleas and stammered explanations, "I... can't... not... graduate... I'm ... already accepted to college..." My tears were so forceful they practically shot out of my eyes like water from a lawn sprinkler, I couldn't see anything. All I knew was that my life was ruined, and that it was all my fault.
"Okay, okay," Jack said between my outbursts, "now let's just take it easy, just settle down." His tone was soothing, listening to Jack was like listening to a bedtime story. "If you go outside right now, and go for a nice long walk," he said, "I'll just erase two of these absences, all right?"
My tears stopped. Could this really be true? Could one walk really make the difference between working in a gas station or becoming a tenured college professor? Was this even ethical, could Jack really do this? I didn't care if it was or not. "Uh, okay," I said, and left Jack's office.
I went outside and walked like I had never walked before. I walked all the way around the school campus, up the hill past the auditorium and the gym, past the boys dorms and beyond to the other side of the hill, past the main building, the science buildings, the infirmary, the girls dorms and the dining hall until I was back in front of Jack's office. When I was done circling the campus I did it again for good measure. To this day I don't know if Jack was watching me.
Two weeks later I graduated under the shade of a 100 year-old oak tree with 65 other students, in a ceremony presided over by Elmo, and never told any of my classmates how close I came to not graduating.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Damn I'm good.
Monday, June 9, 2008
Thanks a million,