Road Warrior

In the age of the iPhone and Spotify the notion of planning the music for a road trip has become quaintly obsolete. In my teenage automotive odysseys the carefully chosen handful of cassettes—or even the stack of 8-track tape that provisioned my best friends Volkswagen Vanagon—were crucial to the success or failure of any journey.

These analog media were eventually displaced by the no less bulky, but supposedly more reliable and sonically crisper CD, which, in turn, are quickly going the way of the just mentioned 8-track.

Now the world’s music library has become mobile: you can either get access to pretty much all of it whenever you want or at least pack enough material into your mobile device to get you back and forth from Coast to Coast dozens of times. Car trip soundtrack planning has become a casualty of the everything-always mentality of our times.

Undaunted, I cling to the physical purveyors of sound for these adventures: the inaptly named jewel boxes scattered around the cockpit, the discs themselves grabbed pell-mell as the chariot hurtles down the highway. An expressive disorder of food and music packaging remains for me crucial to the staging of such a journey.

Musical choices, both those made with consideration and in a last-minute panic, can bring about fortuitous, unforgettable contrasts and convergences: the promethean 3rd Piano Concerto of Beethoven on the Alleghany Plateau in the midst of a blinding, cataclysmic thunderstorm; the Manhattan skyline coming into view over the New Jersey Meadowlands to Dexter Gordon’s Gotham City; crossing the Elbe along with Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos; Puget Sound stretching out at sunset towards the Olympic Mountains to Sarah Vaughn and Oscar Peterson doing “I’ve Got the World on A String”—no words set to music could have been truer at that moment for the teenage driver in his 1965 Ford Fairlane. The physical chaos of those cassettes and discs is itself expressive of the freedom that the open road promises.

For last week’s trip from Ithaca in the middle of New York state westward over a blighted stretch of I-90 along Lake Erie from Pennsylvania into Ohio, and then south to Kenyon College to the west of Columbus for a an organ concert for the American Bach Society, I gave a little more thought than usual to my musical selections.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m one year short of fifty, the larger journey most likely past its midpoint. Like life itself, the road, as it turns out, is not endless.

My themes for the seven hours driving time to my destination: Iroquois music; 1794; and Art Tatum.

To traverse the ancestral lands of the Keepers of the Western Gate I chose Seneca Social Dance Music recorded on the Allegany Reservation in New York in 1977-80; originally released on LP by Ethnic Folkways, since 2012 it has been available on CD.

It is a cliché of travel writing that to journey away from urban centers–the supposed source of civilization—is to go back in time: old music is far-away music both chronologically and geographically. Even though New York Route 17, which follows for a time the Allegheny River as it heads towards the Ohio, has been upgraded to Interstate status and given the deathly number 86, the region around the roadway has a remote feel, as if it’s a few decades behind the Eastern seaboard and the post-industrial cities to its west.

The Seneca were the western-most member of the six-nation Iroquois Confederacy and this stretch of what became New York retains a good measure of its wildness. It still feels like a frontier: remote, unmalled, with few freeway exits and the bare minimum of rest stops–or text stops as they’re now called. The Allegany Reservation is home to the Senecas, the Keepers of the Western Gate.

Aside from a single track done by The Allegany Singing Society, the music on this disc is performed exclusively by Avery and Fidelia Jimerson. Then in their sixties, these musicians need only their strong, resonant voices and accompanying drums. The proceedings open with the Shake the Bush Dance, which chugs along with restive, rustling force in a style out of fashion by the late 1970s says Mary Frances Riemer in excellent notes that are illuminating both historically and musically; the ethnomusicologist made the recording herself and even provided transcriptions of several of the songs.

The Jimersons give us a feast of humans dancing in emulation of fellow animals (raccoons and robins); songs in praise of crops (corn, tobacco) and of dancing shoes (moccasins). The disc concludes with Avery Jimerson’s rendition of the Seneca Anthem, a resolute melody, whose minor mode he ornaments microtonally towards the major. My Western ears, tuned by the myth of the noble savage, can’t help but hear resistance in this melody’s textured blade.

The Pickering Treaty of 1794, the first international agreement with native peoples concluded by the newly formed United States and signed by George Washington, granted to the Iroquois more than 30,000 acres of this region of Western New York with its fertile valleys and richly wooded hills; according to the agreement “the United States will never claim the same, nor disturb the Seneka Nation … in the free use and enjoyment thereof.”

In 1941, with the America’s munitions and steel industry kicking into high gear, the reservation lands came under threat from a scheme to dam the Allegheny. The Senecas fought the plan all the way to the Supreme Court, losing finally in 1959. The Army Corps of Engineers starting construction right away, flooding a third of the reservation and submerging much of the most fertile bottomland and forcing the relocation of 130 families. As always, the Corps claimed flood control as the main purpose of the project, though the vast reservoir did service the Pittsburgh steel mills to the south. The massive earthen wall the corps builds and maintains is visible to the south of the new Interstate. The artificial lake’s black, still water is ghostly contrast to the free running stretches of the Allegheny leading to the massive and unsightly casino near the reservation’s biggest town, Salamanca. This self-styled “resort” is a desolate looking structure that hosted the Osmond brothers for this week’s entertainment. Their sibs Donnie and Marie aren’t joining in on the reservation: they’re at the Flamenco out in Vegas.

The interchange that feeds the hotel with destination gamblers is being re-graded—upgraded, I suppose: signs of the “progress” the interstate will bring. All I could of think as I sped by the eyesore was how much more powerful and true the Jimersons’ music is than that of the Osmonds, and what an irony it is that the Mormons not the Senecas play the big house.

The Allegheny River was the eighteenth-century superhighway to the (Old) Northwest. In August of 1794, just three months before the signing of the Pickering Treaty, Mad Anthony Wayne had routed the Miamis at the Battle of Fallen Timbers near present-day Toledo. After their defeat in the War of Independence, the British had abandoned their native allies and the land-hungry Americans came pouring in.

Back in the British capital audiences were being entertained and astonished by the genius of Joseph Haydn: his “Clock” symphony (no. 104) was premiered in the Hanover Square Rooms in the Spring of 1794. As I head into the Old Northwest in May of 2013 I put on a vivid recording from 2011 by one of America’s leading period-instrument orchestras, Philharmonia Baroque, with the lively and precise Brit, Nicholas McGegan, conducting. To me behind the wheel, the faux-foreboding slow introduction to the first movement sounds glib given the events that transpired in 1794 in this region, especially as compared to the delight the British merchants and aristocracy were then taking from their German visitor’s arch musical humor. The symphony’s nickname comes from the pizzicato ticking strings of the exaggeratedly graceful Andante: on the other side of the Atlantic, time was running out for the natives of North America.

Soon after I-86 hooks up with I-90 there is an explosion of the truck stops and consumer outlets, and the sounds of the eighteenth century no longer seem right. Also misplaced in this blighted sprawlscape is the virtuosic urbanity of Art Tatum whose singular brilliance is so evocative of 20th-century city jazz club culture. But the legendary pianist was a native of Ohio, and made his name in the 1920s at Val’s in the Alley in Cleveland. My route skirts that city and Val’s is long gone anyway. Still, I reach for a sumptuously produced box set (Storyville, 2008) of 10 discs and a bonus DVD. (Don’t worry, I didn’t try to watch this on my laptop while racing along with the bigrigs.)  This is inexhaustible treasure trove of previously unavailable live recordings made between 1934 and 1956 and taken from club dates, radio and television appearances, party performances, and concerts. These have been restored through sophisticated digital means that let us hear the icy clarity of Tatum’s runs and the visionary colors of his harmony, even while the warmth and resonance of the venues and their wonderstruck listeners is not effaced by the technological transformation. Tatum is heard hear solo and with his famed trio of Slam Stewart and Tiny Grimes, as well as with a handful of other musicians.  The jaw-dropping brilliance of his mind and fingers definitely perks a driver up, even after four straight hours on the road. To hear Tatum—to cite one of so many other possible examples on this essential and uplifting collection—dismantle and then reassemble the Dvorak favorite Humoresque in two very different versions from May and July of 1944 is to be simultaneously amazed and cheered. The blind Tatum had limitless and profound musical insight and with his fingers made us see and hear the familiar in undreamt of ways. The destruction, deceit, and prejudices of the past and the wreckage of the land beyond the windshield are transformed by his magic, immortal hands.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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