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!