Our Visit to America, Summer 2013

If you live in the Metro West suburbs of Boston,you might be only 10 minutes away from the ocean, or some form of saltwater. Since Boston Harbor takes on a few too many “forms” in the summer ("coli-" is one of the less appealing prefixes), most of us opt for a slightly longer trip to any of the enchanting beaches that line our New England shores. An hour's drive either way and we can dip a toe in the bracing waters of the Labrador Current or frolic in the cool spray kicked up by the Gulf Stream.  Some of us, however, fasten our seat belts and follow our passions inland, leaving our swimwear and dreams of summer fun safely preserved in our closets, to be shaken out another year.
Paul and I had two major destinations during the hottest months: Elkins, West Virginia, a 5-day residency which took 9 days including driving, followed by a 12-day, 2000-mile run to St. Louis, Missouri. We had 3 weeks in between tours. The first week we spent unpacking, the third week we spent repacking, and the week in between we fixed stuff. As usual, some plumbing component had broken down just before we left, and another one broke to signal our arrival back home. We invested in a stronger brand of dental floss to keep things running smoothly until we got off the road.
The success of our tours hinged on two pieces of nonmusical equipment. The first was our Edgestar portable refrigerator. We bought this as a response to the effects of “road food,” which any seasoned traveler knows is no food at all. Years of roadside dining had depleted our vitamins and our wallets and caused us to spend most of our downtime in recovery. Now we could cook our own meals and heat them up in the hotel room. Our packing lists became more elaborate and included plates, silverware, pots and pans and jars of curry, chutney, salsa, marinara sauce and other international delights. This year we cooked for 3 days before each trip and vacuum sealed everything so it would keep for the duration of the tour. We used the hotel microwave to reheat our home-cooked meals, but reckoned that most restaurant food is microwaved anyway.
“Wild and Wonderful” is lettered on the sign that greets you at the West Virginia state line. It used to say “Open for Business” but someone must have realized that the local economy was shifting from mountaintop mining, chemical manufacture and Anything that Burns to eco-tourism. Scenic highways wind through miles of stately forests in the Western Appalachians, and White Sulphur Springs, Berkeley Springs and Beckley boast quaint B&Bs and local arts, crafts, jams and jellies. Elkins, in the north central part of the state, is the home of Davis & Elkins College, which in turn houses the Augusta Heritage Center, which runs music and dance camps throughout the summer. We were there to teach and perform (along with a dozen or so other teachers) for about 200 eager students from all over the world during “Blues Week.” Activites were scheduled from morning until night, with parties and informal jams lasting into the wee hours. No one slept, not even during classes, surprisingly. We got to perform several times with the trio of keyboardist Arthur Migliazza, bassist Ralph Gordon and drummer Andrew Guterman. One of the highlights of my week was leading my students in an all-harmonica version of the New Orleans “Second Line” backed up by Andrew’s Pizza Box Percussion class. Andrew did a great job in both settings, and we’re grateful to him for pointing us to our summer’s big purchase, a wheeled cart known as the Rock & Roller R10.
For several months we had been in the market for a new “schlepper,” having left our old, trusty one somewhere in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is a big state with lots of words beginning with “sch” so we didn’t expect to find it just by asking around. Paul had been pestering me to get a new one anyway. He wanted a convertible 4-wheeled model. I was holding out for one that didn’t weigh too much. We found the perfect combination in the Rock & Roller. It extends from 2 to more than 4 feet in length, folds into various configurations, weighs under 30 pounds and holds up to 250 pounds of musical gear, luggage and one portable refrigerator with ease. No more searching or jostling for a hotel cart during check-in or check-out. I secretly delighted in the envious glances of other guests every time we cruised through the lobby. They were probably looking at us with pity for our having to be our own roadies. Still, they looked wistful, which was good enough.
On August 9 we took our Rock & Roller (it seemed too slick and modern to be called a Schlepper, besides, we wanted to retire the moniker in honor of the former one’s service, like Larry Bird’s 34 hanging from the rafters of whatever they’re calling the Boston Garden these days) on its maiden voyage, a concert on Cape Cod. We were as close to the ocean as you can get without setting eyes on it. The show was lovely but we had a harrowing drive through lashing rain and wind and got home after midnight. A few hours later, we repacked the car and headed for the Mighty Mississippi, never resting until we got to Danbury, and then bound and determined to cross the Hudson before nightfall.
St. Louis was the site of this year’s annual convention of the Society for Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica, or SPAH (I always articulate the full title in conversation, lest outsiders think we attended a confab for Jacuzzi enthusiasts). It’s a manic, exuberant affair. I can only describe it as follows: you walk up to a hotel entrance. A couple of old gents are sitting playing harmonica on benches by the front door. As you enter the lobby, you are greeted by a wall of sound from the adjoining lounge. Anywhere from 3-10 musicians are rendering an all-harmonica version of “Stardust” or “Peg o’ My Heart” or “The Marines Hymn” complete with bass harps, chord harps, chromatics and standard issue mouth organs. You wander down a hallway and are greeted by a different kind of harmonica music issuing from every ballroom and conference room. A store/museum features 150 years of vintage instruments and an endless array of new products, harmonica combs in 50 colors and different materials, reed tuning systems, high performance metals, specialty microphones. In every corner of every room, in every open space, two or three people are conferring animatedly and trading riffs. This scene is repeated thousands of times. Everywhere you look there is a guy with a big gray beard and a little tweed suitcase. In short, it’s heaven.
The organizers of SPAH invited us to be part of its 50th anniversary lineup, which included real stars of the instrument like Charlie McCoy, Robert Bonfiglio and John Sebastian, Jr. On the night of our concert, we were supposed to play before John. Instead he gave us a wonderful feature by combining our sets, starting off as a solo act, introducing our duo and returning to the stage to play several songs with us. I recalled that our first gig with John and his J Band had also been in August in St. Louis, 19 years earlier. In those days I was caught up in the newness of playing with big names to big crowds. I was too young to know the pleasure of sitting around with old friends playing even older songs. Our set this night was a particularly sweet vintage of Lovin’ Spoonful songs, slow-drag blues and jug band music.
We stayed in St. Louis for 3 days, rarely leaving the hotel. I attended presentations, taught a workshop on ensemble playing and gave a couple of interviews. In between gigs, we heated up our homemade meals and watched baseball, the only good thing left on TV if you’re not a fan of Amish Shark Swamp Hoarders.
On Saturday, with the convention still in full swing, we loaded up the van and headed East. It was about 21 hours back to Boston. Our original plan on the way out had been to take the drive in 7-hour sections, driving two days and resting for one, then completing the trip the next day. Then we revised it to shorten each day’s drive to 5 hours, which is more humane for the lone driver. However, this added a day onto the trip, so I ended up driving for 3 days in a row without a break, which was really 4 days including our underwater run to the Cape the day before. If you’ve read this far, you can guess that I was feeling a bit punchy on the third leg of the trip, between Washington, PA and Indianapolis. About halfway, we passed through Richmond, Indiana. Richmond was the home of the Starr Piano Company and Gennett Records, where some of the greatest blues and jazz records were made. It is a humble, run-down city, not even rating a mention on most blues history maps. We had no plans to visit it, so I have to believe there was a little Blues Magic at work in our unscheduled stop there.
Maybe it was the number of days in the driver’s seat. Maybe I was absorbed in conversation. Maybe I was distracted by the GPS, or by all the trucks that crowd the 2 westbound lanes of I-70. In any case, I was definitely over the speed limit when we crossed into Indiana. I didn’t see the state motto, but I did see an electronic road sign that flashed “Use Extreme Caution:” and something else, but I was going too fast to read it. About 500 feet and a few seconds later, I saw a huge, jagged pothole in front of me. Too late, I swerved, and ended up hitting it sideways, almost losing control of the car. I slowed down to 75 and resolved to watch the road more carefully. The road surface was pretty carved up with potholes and construction barrels. A minute or two went by, and just as Paul and I had resumed talking, I heard a small “pop” and hissing sound. “Did you hear something?” I asked him. “No” he said. Just then we started driving over the kind of grooved concrete that makes the tires hum. “Well do you hear that?” I said. “It’s the grooves in the pavement,” he shouted, as the humming sound turned into a loud buzz and blended with a rhythmic thumping. “We have a flat!” I yelled. The pavement smoothed out and the buzzing and thumping continued. “We have to stop the car” Paul shouted over the banging sounds. “I know!” I shouted back. At this point, still going 70 and passing trucks in the left lane, I realized I would have to go faster to get over to the right without getting killed. “The car has too much weight in it, it’s going to take out the suspension, we have to stop now!” “I know, I’m trying!” I threaded my way through the traffic and got over, braking hard. The grooves on the shoulder chewed up what was left of my rear tire. By the we thumped to a halt, it was stripped down to the rim. There was a sickening burning smell and the sound of a married couple arguing somewhere.
The road is like an ocean. One minute you’re frolicking in the waves, the next you’re fighting the tide and calculating your odds of drawing breath until help arrives, if it arrives at all. Even on the calmest day you can’t turn your back on it. We had left our little coastal enclave to cross the wide prairie, speeding towards the unbroken horizon. All at once, with our complacency shattered, we saw it as a vast, lonely and unforgiving place. This impression was not altered by our leathery tow truck driver or our 3-hour stay at the Toyota dealership in Richmond, except to reflect that even a sea creature would know how to read the size on a tire, even if it wasn’t his job.
The car needed a new tire and an alignment, but was otherwise fine. We ended up staying over in Richmond, which shot our day off. For the rest of the trip I drove the speed limit, feeling lucky to be alive. Our ordeal had left me chastened and cautious. Gingerly avoiding the freeway, we stuck to the older Interstate, Route 40, which runs parallel to 70. It turned out to be a beautiful road, straight, freshly oiled and with very little traffic. We took it most of the way to St. Louis until we had no choice but to resume Interstate driving. By then I had my sea legs back, though I still felt a little edgy.
On our way back, we left the Interstate as soon as we could and tacked onto 40 again, and were drawn as if by magnetism straight to the center of Richmond. Paul saw a mural of Charlie Patton painted on the front of a building in downtown, and shouted so loud he nearly scared me out of my seat. I drove around the block so we could see it again, and was distracted by an even larger image of Hoagy Carmichael. Suddenly there seemed to be a giant of jazz or blues peering down at us from every painted brick wall. We used our GPS to try to locate the old Starr-Gennett complex. Instead it led us to a brick building with an enormous mural of Lonnie Johnson painted on the side. On the other side of the building we met a diminutive guy named Dewey who gave us directions to the factory.
A large parrot perches behind a phonograph record, adorning the brick facade which is all that remains of the old Gennett Studio. The image has faded and been repainted several times in the nearly 100 years since Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Thomas Dorsey, Bix Beiderbecke and Hoagy Carmichael recorded there. In its heyday, the bustling Starr-Gennett factory complex employed hundreds of people and pressed and sold millions of records every year. Today it consists of a few brick shells being reclaimed by vegetation. The train tracks, so close by that recording sessions were suspended regularly as the boxcars rumbled through, are quiet. The only hint of the area’s musical past are a few plaques and a “Walk of Fame” path leading through the hushed heart of the Whitewater Gorge.
We stood among the weeds for a few minutes, soaking in the scenery and the afternoon sun, and returned to our van with a sense of contentment. We drove up a hill, turned right to head East, and followed a winding river of asphalt all the way to the Atlantic, or 10 minutes from it, and home.