I was asked to share a stage with Suzi Wood for Lettersong’s live radio show on Crescent Hill Radio. My performance is first and then …
Suzi Wood takes the stage!
I was asked to share a stage with Suzi Wood for Lettersong’s live radio show on Crescent Hill Radio. My performance is first and then …
Suzi Wood takes the stage!
Who do you think
all this is for?
This careful talking,
Who glances into the river
only to turn a blind eye?
Is it that something,
as so it seems!
There are angels
and demons at play.
with blood dripping
down my ankles!
down my brow.
Burning piles of
Crying out in vain!
in a work felt rest.
Yes, everyday as if
this death practice,
in the waking –
is for real.
Liken the thought
of your radiance,
life is the sweetness.
I can’t stop the sun
I can only turn
away for so long –
dark and soulless.
Louisville is – A Native Language
for Geoff Gage
Years ago, we ate acid like it was candy. Little paper squares. Gold star and album cover. We found and lived out the stories in the books our parents collected on shelves. A real life folkways. The Grateful Dead concerts were our pilgrimage and remember: Ken Kesey left that battle to go home.
On our acid trips, we explored chaos while walking the property that used to be known as Mulberry Hill. George Rogers Clark’s home was my front yard. That big tree was our friend as we played with crystals, native religion and youth. Our parents dragging us to a neighborhood theater called the Uptown to watch movies of their generation.
Woodstock, Harold and Maude and then we found our books! Seven Arrows, Lame Deer Speaks and Black Elk.
And years ago, I found myself living in a shadow. A shadow of an activist mom at war with the University of Louisville. Who didn’t flinch when I found Frank Zappa. And you went to prom with my sister. Your long hair and top hat. Her tie dyed dress. We were only doing as we were Twice Told. Good children, raised on the rest of the story and rebellious members of a sorts, of a corpse of discovery, of our own right of passage. Your brother, enticed by Minerva and her messaging on the bulletin boards. He bit the apple in 1984.
Once i suggested that our youthful parties were liken those hippies and their acid tests. Like Garcia and Bob. Our heroes and their masks. We passed our exams and life went on. And now what of it?
I went in search of America, by way of traditional marriage, railroading and folk music. You went in search of Europe, by way of music and love. And this prose is breaking rules of language! A way of thinking in lucid colors and fragments. Our curriculum, changed our thinking. The experience, we kissed the sky. Our freak flags now old and tattered, yet waving. Bones creaking … listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock, my soul.
So, brother, this is what you need to know.
We come from the land of Ali! I see his face from the middle of the river when we are docking that steamboat. My heart and soul found me all fought out. Not broken! A decorated veteran of the union army.
Muhammad’s palace sits on the Banks of the Ohio. His muraled eyes, looking over at this town as if to say, uh hum Louisville, y’all full of shit. And remember, York was willed to William Clark as human property. So when the activists start talking statues and slavery? This whole town needs paint thrown on it. And all the whitewash made, won’t change the fact that a Boone watches over the entrance to Cherokee Park. Not even Mother Nature could remove that statue with a direct hit of her Tornado, we all spookily remember.
And back to that shadow.
Your father. A hero of mine, and a potential legacy for you. My father is an electrician who taught me about family, labor and love. Your father, was why I knew what to do when I got to the railroad. When the spirit of Joe Hill started pulling at my heart! It was because a long time ago, I stole one of your dad’s records. Doc Watson and his son, Merle. They sang about John Henry on that record. My step father’s entire family worked for the L&N, that doesn’t stop here, anymore.
And back to those trips, Captain Trips and your top hat. And that land known as Otter Creek Park and lovers leap. We were like hobbits, like elves, like wizards. Our Joseph Campbell classes like a real time university in mythology, learned in the hearts of darkness. Like your family friend and his Vietnam boonie hat we all shared, however, given to you as a gift. Your father’s close friend, and his war bonnet that sits on your mantle now.
I am thinking about all those hippies that must have been laughing at us. The elders who come and sit with your father in your backyard, around a fire of your creation. We are to them the ones grasping a baton, their race almost run. Their Wendell Berry dreams, their cooperative visions, worn down like the forgotten Paths to Peace, the ever changing banks of the Ohio.
We see all their failures ; the unkempt houses, their back water stories. What they built for us, their Homefronts, sacred song circles ; their youths for peace are being willed a dream that is being stolen from them, piece by piece or worse : in danger of extinction! That is the big picture! That is their worry.
I am writing in a language of place.
And dropping names of people and ideals great in scope. Like Hunter S. Thompson! Nobody ever told us that we were trippin’ in his neighborhood! This is Outlaw territory! So what! Like Miles and his colors! Like Harlan Hubbard and his watercolor dreams of river life! I am breathing in the hot air of the Ohio and hearing the puff of the steam engine. Like John Hartford in the pilot house of the Belle, and all the Folk People that have visited this place on Baxter Ave.
You have your stories!
Like you dad, hanging out with Jean Ritchie, like me and Wendell sitting around his kitchen table, showing my son an original painting from Harlan, the old man by the river, winking at me like my watercolor son is something special. And I find solidarity with Uncle Burley. Remember that story I told you about the father cutting tobacco. Remember the part about the grandfather breaking up the fight and little brother, worried about the son, the brother, mad who leaves the homeplace to find his own, then, returns.
I am writing this because I know, you know!
You see me sitting in your backyard cabin. My son, a young buck shadow boxing and stealing the key from his mother’s pillow.. If you hear us fighting, it’s because we are harvesting tobacco. He, just like you is living in a shadow. John Paul, the labor guy, is his father. And one day this field will be his. What that will be, I don’t know. Don’t really care. Let there be songs … to fill the air.
So, happy Mother’s day.
I am Iron John. and isn’t that a funny way to put it? Brother, remember, I am the one with the tool that the slave masters made illegal. And remember, we live to be like all that Sun Ra our mystic sufi teacher threw at us to decipher. When those men and their movements were finding themselves, we were flying on our magical carpets. If i remember correctly, you went to the moon. I, watched as you traveled, the smoke from the lodge, the night sky. Now ask about Rumi and Shams. Ask about Soul Fury and my conversations with Coleman …
Ask me what i see when i play that djembe drum. Ask me why i still believe in things that nobody else knows about. Like Juba – flowing like Sweet Honey From a Rock. (York named one of his children, Juba) Like drums of passion! Brother this is slave code that I am writing in. This is a native language that I am spitting, mad like a farmer, folk in remedy! Jin Go, Jin Go Ba … informs my mind wanderings as I whistle railroad chain gang songs on a packet boat. Right?
So, in conclusion. Brother. I have gone to many a source. Sun Ra and Bawa’s house in Philly. Sought out Anne Braden’s closest friends and Joe Hill has spoken to me, like a saviour. Like a Chicago anarchist martyr. I, as well as you have seen a big picture! We are living in it!
Once a mentor of mine, he was Carl Braden’s best buddy, he told me, “you can’t take Jesus from the working class.” That was all I needed to hear. We pile it high and deep. PHD -The Dalai Lama and a Marx, that hits the spot! Carl’s father was a railroader!
This town, Louisville, is our home. And nothing has changed since we were kids. Big money still runs the show. Jim Crow is lurking around every corner. The women are fast and the horses, beautiful. The Bourbon still flows on Bardstown Road and Thomas Merton’s name is mentioned around here almost daily.
And as the sun comes up behind me,
a rebellious son, sleeping in the loft above me.
Just know this …
We went further!
Like what it said on that bus. We probably went too far. Reflection is what fuels this morning lamentation. Remember, I was the one who went into cuckoo’s nest. And remember the big indian runs into the sunset!
Remember this too … ripple in still waters, when there is no pebble tossed, no wind to blow. I know this has been imprinted into your heart like that story about tobacco harvesting i found when i fell into Mr. Berry’s well.
Like how those steel rails haunted me of railyard ghosts.
Like that whisper i hear daily.
Don’t Mourn, Organize.
Your not so distant neighbor.
John Paul of Turtle Island, USA
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song.
Brother … we are the Blues Brothers.
We are on a mission from God,
the great spirit – call it what you will.
Amen and women too.
You are the preacher’s son, a jumping mouse
climbing the seven storey mountain!
hint … you are the big chief now!
I already proved i could lift the control
stand and beat the steam drill down!
It’s your turn hoss!
Jazz musicians in their solos frequently quote other musicians they have learned things from. I am riffing my way back to a place in time – to a table on a roof in NYC on a hot, late summer night in 1994. If I were John Coltrane, I might put some Bird on it. If I were Miles Davis, I might quote Dizzy.
Quoting other soloists is a tradition that aficionados of Jazz recognize. If I were John Gilmore, Sun Ra’s long-time saxophone player, the sax player that John Coltrane was reported to have said was the last sax player that he took time to study. I would just play. So, I have played my way to a point. Let’s go back to NYC! Let’s get in the pocket. Take it to the head! From the top, of a roof. The roof is on fire. We don’t need no water. And so on.
After drinking cokes and hanging out on a roof in the east village, the next day came and the sun came up and I left Christopher Street and walked back to the Gershwin hostel. The Sun Ra Arkestra was going to be playing two gigs in the month of June and I was going to both shows. I was receiving my crazy check money via western union from my mother, so this was going to be publicly funded activity. The first gig was at the Bottom Line and guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan was playing with the Arkestra. I found some interesting information at this gig.
It surprised me that Mr. Jordan was playing with the Arkestra. Before the show, Marshall Allen, Sun Ra’s longtime wingman, was sitting out in the open, so I walked up and after a brief introduction, I asked him a qwarshtion. Why is Stanley playing with y’all? Marshall simply said that he was inspired. So, that’s all it takes to be a member of the mythical Sun Ra Arkestra? Inspiration? Well … sew a button on your shirt! I liked that answer. I also found out that:
Dancing in NYC’s Bottom Line is prohibited; except at the bar, in your little space. Space is the place and I was not going to be able to contain myself, so I danced. The Sun Ra Arkestra is a jazz ensemble that dresses up in space costumes and follows a mystic bandleader. Ra had recently passed away and John Gilmore was leading up the throng. I am a serious follower of Ra. I used to call him on the phone and ask him questions. My Sufi friend with the Teepee had his home number and I would call and ask Ra one question. Sunny would go on for hours.
“Hey Sunny, what does it take to be a good musician?” And so on. He would talk for a long time. I listened as if I was receiving a personal class about jazz, vibrational healing and human history – His Story is endless … Sun Ra and his band from outer space are featured in a movie called Make a Joyful Noise. In it, Ra recites a poem while standing at the base of a replica of an Egyptian statue.
History repeats itself.
His Story repeats itself.
I do not repeat myself.
My story is endless …
What’s your story?
Once upon a time, I love New York in June and I was going to go see The Sun Ra Arkestra in the meatpacking district. I took a cab across town and was let out in outer space. Or at least that is what is seemed to me. I am from Louisville, Kentucky, and not used to seeing prostitutes leaning into car windows selling their packages. Ladies with their neatly packaged tits hanging out while their big asses are struggling to contain themselves in the tight shorts thereof.
On my way to a bar called the Cooler, I walked past real gay biker bars with Harleys, all dressed up in their finest turquoise feathers and leathers. Me being the dude that always shows up early, I walked down to the river to place my hand into some water. That was all I wanted to do. I just wanted to hide for a minute and touch the river. Take a break from NYC. New York never sleeps and I needed a break from all of it. So, I walked down the street two blocks right into another crazy story.
There was a pier at the end of the street that went out into the Hudson river. As I walked down to greet the river, I noticed a little hut over to the other side of the pier. The hut was made from old mattresses, billboard wrappings and old drift wood. As I walked the concrete pier, I didn’t pay much attention to what might be going on inside of the lean-to looking structure. My bee line was the river that was going to be my connection to a natural world that NYC was lacking.
I had been under the pier for a while smoking one of my last smokes when a skinny old black dude yelled over the side for me to get my fucking ass off his pier. I climbed up the side of the concrete wall that provided me a bit of much-needed privacy, to a conversation with a very pissed off dude.
“What the fuck are you doing on my pier?!” he exclaimed.
I said, “Sir, I am sorry, I was just wanting to touch the river.”
He said, “Do you know where the fuck you are?”
I said, “yes sir, I am in NYC, getting ready to go see the Sun Ra Arkestra up the street. I was early and I just wanted to see the river before the show.”
“The Sun Ra Arkestra? Those niggers are still around?” he said.
“Yes sir, and I am going up the street soon, you outta come up there and check out the show.”
Man says, “Motherfucker, I asked you, do you know where you are?” asking in a not so pissed off voice, so I said, “Look man, I am really sorry and I really don’t know what you mean.”
He then tells me that this was his pier and that little hut on the other side of the walkway was where business men come to fuck his transvestites. I apologized profusely and he then relented his freak out and decided to join me. While walking to the show, I mentioned that I needed to get some smokes. We walked over to a gas station and I asked for the cheapest non-filters that they had. He called the person behind the counter by his first name and told him that he has it and to give me the camel straights. After this purchase, we were on our way up the hill to see the Arkestra.
The Cooler really was a meat cooler back when the meatpacking district was packing meat. I walked in the front door with the transvestite salesman or I guess representative and he walked over to a booth and sat down with some people he seemed to know. I didn’t talk to him again the entire night. I did walk up to the bar and sat down with John Gilmore. I was early by about two hours and the Arkestra was setting up the stage.
Mr. Gilmore was just hanging out drinking a drink and I sat down and introduced myself. The Arkestra is like that. Very approachable. Our conversation was easy. I asked him about the book list that Ra assigned to his Berkeley students back in the day. I asked John if he had ever assigned the Arkestra books to read. He said yes and I asked him if he had ever heard of a book that I had been reading before I left to go to the Rant NYC beat celebration. I asked him about a book called The Power of Sound by a Sufi named Hazrat Inayat Khan. He mentioned that he had read parts of it years ago, but that he was not reading much now.
We talked for a bit, mostly about what it was like to play for Ra. I could tell that Mr. Gilmore was tired. He soon would leave the planet and Marshall Allen would take the captain’s seat of the Arkestra. I can’t really remember all we talked about. We did talk about Baba Olutunji a bit. Olatunji was the reason I had stayed behind after all the Louisville people went home after we “Ate the Beats.” Eat the Beats was the journey further, the title of what Ron Whitehead had organized. RANT eats NYC and the Beats. INSOMNIACATHON! 48 hours of nonstop poetry and music.
The Cooler and the Bottom Line show converged with Sun Ra’s 80-year birth celebration. WKCR, Columbia college radio had already played three days straight of RA on the radio. I had no idea that any of this Ra stuff was going on when I left Kentucky with my percussion ensemble to perform and then host the open stages. I was hanging around for a month because we were all supposed to meet again a month later at a place called the Omega Institute for Holistic healing. The rest of our group, PRANA, was to attend a weeklong class of African drumming by Baba. The same Babatunde Olatunji that Sun Ra knew when he moved his Arkestra to NYC in the 60’s. Baba hired Sun Ra’s musicians and they knew each other well.
Later in life – I found out that the Omega Institute was founded by a relative of Hazrat Inayat Khan. The Sufi writer who I had been reading. The book that John Gilmore had once read, that I was then reading, that was given to me by the dude who turned me onto Ra. The guy who had the teepee where I had made the final decision to go to the crazy bin. Things get connected when you are dropped off by a New York taxi driver named Mohammed, in outer space, NYC.
This morning and coffee, blind tightly shut.
Home away from home.
I try to embrace reality, in kind. Settle down,
breathe. Enjoy the cool fresh spring air.
A family waits for me at the other end of this L&N.
Thoughts have replaced song.
Worries soothed by experience.
Long stare, looking to nothing.
Thinking, mourning, dreaming.
Thinking about my father, step father, mother.
An upbringing, theirs.
An awesome task, responsibility to a son and wife.
Facts, equations, works.
Draw a solid line under all the fulfillment of life.
Like a prayer. A mandala of me like the last grain
of sand from a monk’s artful creation blown away.
Collected and thrown into today and tomorrows.
There is a new moment out there past closed hotel windows.
I have not seen it yet. This plastic room, nothing here
is real. I have no want to be exposed to foreign light.
Television, Mode of operation, Facebook, Twitter.
All this is for folly! The worried words of so called
friends. Their worry. I know just a drop of his story,
her want. Vanity glaring on pixel glass’ reflection.
An unreachable solidarity. Knowing of pain.
Of no relief or an outlet. Sharing a tremendous burden.
Like nothing we have never experienced.
I fancy that poets of old like us meet.
Dreamers of dreams. Scribes of time and place.
A mirror for some. The melody of life of
dissonance and harmony metaphorically tricking
an orchestra into laying down their instruments
and dancing with the audience.
This morning and coffee after a short rest.
These words are for anyone who has time.
I take time. Like that time, as a child I stole
some gum from the little mom and pop up the street.
I have reasoning and excuses
that afford me that sort of favor!
Mine! All this is ours anyway!
This. Some seem to be praying for an end.
I know how to make it all stop.
Power is a button I know how to push.
Revolt, revolution, revolving.
A love supreme in action and in thought.
A pursuance of Psalms, a wisdom of history.
Holding sympathetic breath screaming.
We do need each other. Duality.
A transcendentalists worst nightmare!
My mother at a late age
decided to go back to college.
To become a teacher!
She was my Cub Scout den mother,
we saved stamps for Bangladesh.
And after we filled gallon ice cream buckets
with stamps, thousands of used stamps to
be matched face value, the Boy Scouts of
America put us on the front page of Boy’s Life!
They didn’t like our activism at first.
Bangladesh? Where is that? Many people
would ask, and us kids had just learned
ourselves, about poverty and working conditions.
We were doing something, just a little something
to help, my mother leading us by heart and action.
In college, she helped to fight Apartheid.
I learned to get up stand up, stand up for
your rights. I lived in fear my mom would be
arrested. I did my homework, with her new
college buddies at Denny’s – organizing.
After divestment, and graduation, she left
her activism to teach, “I took my activism to the
classroom” – she said many times. I remember
her first days, nervous and scared – the little
mixed girl from east Jefferson St. Mother of three.
Her first classroom was as small as a closet.
Her children labeled behavior problems.
She said frequently her kids were the poorest
of the poor white, and the poorest of the poor
black, Lake Dreamland and Cotterhomes.
Her children. She told stories of home visits
with kids who had dirt floors, and issues
because of where they were living.
She made a thousand excuses for them
because they were the ones left behind.
“Poverty knows no color”, I remember her saying.
I remember hours around the kitchen table
she worked at home grading papers.
Calls to parents, worrying about her kids.
Wondering if they would make it to school.
When the school system wanted to label me –
she let me quit school at the age of sixteen.
She knew i was special, her lessons deep
with moral, her life was lesson enough –
the youngest of many, an immigrants kid.
Raised in the Jim Crow south – her country
white Baptist mother and her accent –
her brown Lebanese father, afraid to teach his kids
their language because he didn’t want his
children to be made fun of. Singled out.
The underdog was who my teacher mother
fought for! Her kids, the ones who chemicals
had infected, music had exploited – parents
had abandoned, boys with no fathers, girls
with no roll models, families struggling to live.
If my mother could see what is going on now –
she would be another voice in the sea of red.
The teachers chanting “we’re not gonna take it!”
And it is a shame that these people who we all
have to thank, are having to take a day off.
Teaching is a calling, I saw it call my mother
to a life of struggle. Struggle like a mother
does when her children are sick. Or when her
classroom got too big for her to take care of
them individually. Or struggle with a Principal.
Who saw teaching like a business. Was more
worried about numbers than souls. Put their
politics before children. And it is sad that today
we are in this position. Our Teachers are begging
a government that has been raided by thieves –
for the right to do what they have been called
to do and for the pension and a retirement
that we all benefit from. This is a deep issue.
and if you think a bad teacher is hard to fire …
You really need to learn a serious life lesson.
Anyone can memorize talking points made
by the privitizers. The corporate lackies who
see children as products – say words like
productivity and profit. We as a people are
morally bankrupt, if we can’t stand up for teachers!
When the union’s inspiration through the worker’s blood shall run.
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.
For what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?
For the union makes us strong!
We are public educators and we’re here to take a stand!
This is not the lesson we asked for, this is a fight the politicians planned!
And we’ll stand up for our pensions and we’ll do it hand in hand!
For the union makes us strong!
Every school the board’s sabotage is ours and ours alone!
Every student, parent, worker every brick and every stone!
They are ours, not to languish in, but to thrive in and to own.
For the union makes us strong!
The politicians stole our pensions, and now they want our schools!
They tell us, “it’s just how things are,” and they play us for fools.
But we know that they rigged the game and we won’t obey their rules!
The union makes us strong!
They say “there’s no alternative,” they say it but they’re wrong!
There stealing from our children and they’ve done it for too long!
So join us in our picket lines and join us in our song,
For union makes us strong!
They have taken untold billions, that never toiled to earn!
But without our brains and muscles not a single kid can learn!
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn!
That the union makes us strong!
In our homes and in our classrooms, in the banks and in the street,
our united people’s movement is a force that they can’t beat!
We are here to take back every Board of Education Seat!
And the union makes us strong!
In our hands is placed a power greater than their horded gold.
Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand fold!
We can bring to birth a new world, from the ashes of the old!
For the union makes us strong.
For the union makes us strong!
Re-write 2018 – John Paul Wright – www.railroadmusic.org
Chicago Teachers – 2016 – Ralph Chaplin 1915 – I.W.W