Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Alchemist

Soon after Baldwin's class, I graduated and won (there was competition) an internship to write for the Pioneer Valley Advocate, a weekly newspaper that served the Amherst-Northampton area in western Massachusetts.

Side Note #1
My father was not particularly impressed by this internship.  I don't know why.  He was very anxious about my future. He'd call me up at 8 in the morning to berate me for still being in bed, failing to take into account that I worked nights at the Iron Horse, in Northampton, and did not get to bed before one in the morning.  

The Iron Horse, like my internship, had really been a fantastic experience (that did not particularly impress my father).  In 1987, it was a cozy concert venue, iconic in Northampton, that attracted a great list of performers: Cocoa Taylor, George Winston, Harry Chapin Carpenter, Cecil Taylor, comic Steven Wright...the list is long indeed.

Which leads me to...

Side Note #2

The greatest shared-art performance experience of my life   

Forget Billy Bragg and the other thing I was going to write about.  This is going to be about the Odetta concert.  

Summer, 1987. Odetta did two concerts, and I had tickets for the second.  

I worked at the Iron Horse in the kitchen, as a prep-cook, but I took that night off to be in the audience with my friends for this concert.

I was familiar with Odetta's deep and soulful voice because my father loved her and played her records.  On the rare occasion, in the car, when her voice came over the radio, he would turn it way up  and assume an uncharacteristically blissful expression.  

My father was a person who struggled with a deep and frequently relentless unhappiness.  

Odetta's voice was deep and wide, like a boiling river of sadness, yet undeniably gorgeous.  

Misery brings shame and isolation; but in music, it is nothing more than a cello, or the key of A minor, or Odetta's voice.  

In 1987, the Iron Horse still seated about 85 people, a very intimate space.  Waiting in line for the second concert, the audience from the first concert filed out.  Many of them were shaking their heads. It was not a very good concert, they said.  She didn't seem to be particularly into it, they said.  

My friends and I looked at each other with our characteristic scoffing disgust.  

Had they not heard that Odetta's mother had just died that very day?  

We sat in a booth to the right of the stage.  I sat back on the pew-like bench, bracing myself for grief.

It was a remarkably diverse audience, especially by Northampton standards.  Now that I think about it, there may well have been friends and family of Odetta's there who had traveled in from out of town.  Thre were many African-Americans in the audience. They were not students or graduates or hipsters; they were grown- up men and women.  

They also seemed to braced for grief.  

We all started out a little glassy eyed.

Odetta, very poised, brought the words out slowly.  

The first song I am going to sing for you, in honor of my mother, is "Winnie the Pooh."  

Everyone in the house was crying, daubing cheeks with napkins that smelled like lasagna and jambalaya. 

She embraced our compassion, our tears, our embrace of her. 

I could have stayed there forever.  For all the crying, it was a joyful place.  I had never experienced a pain so exultant in dignity; a pain that bound so many strangers together in sympathy for our shared and frail human condition.

The earlier audience complained that the first concert went short.  

The second concert went long. 

It was an eternal evening, never to be forgotten, never to be repeated.  Lugubrious tides of grief washed across the audience, and back to Odetta.  

And it was okay.  It was more than okay, because Odetta was an artist; and as an artist, she took all of that sadness and transformed it, that night, into something sublime.   

The link below is Odetta singing, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child".

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