Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Mayor of McDougal Street Dave Van Ronk was the Missing Link of Folk Music

Classic Van Ronk at the Cafe Lena.

In the popular mythology the American folk music scene passed from the hills of Appalachia and Mississippi Delta cotton fields to Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, The Almanacs, and The Weavers and then, after an interim of nearly a decade was transmitted by the dying Guthrie and lanky sage Pete Seeger directly to the new avatars—Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, et al.  Usually left out is the defiantly bohemian and countercultural scene of New York’s Greenwich Village—often thought of as the exclusive home of the Beats and Jazz—and the genial giant of a man who helped create and nurture a that tradition but encouraged innovation within it.

Dave Van Ronk was literally a towering figure in American folk music but is almost unknown to all but the most hard core folkies.  There have been blips of renewed interest in him, all confined to relatively rarified intellectual circles.  First there was his highly readable and entertaining posthumously published memoir, The Mayor of McDougal Street which finished by his friend and fellow folk singer Elijah Wald which was published in 2005.  That, in turn, inspired the 2013 film by Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis.  That film won praise for its portrayal of the Greenwich Village scene, but criticism from Van Ronk’s friends because the title character based on him was radically different than the man himself.

He was born as David Kenneth Ritz Van Ronk in Brooklyn on June 30, 1936.  Despite his last name, he had just enough Dutch genes to connect him viscerally to New York back to its founding colonial era.  Mostly he was Irish, a descendent of the hordes of despised immigrants of the 19th Century.  His working class family had risen only moderately and then were set back by the Great Depression.  They moved to Queens and put their son into the heavily Irish Holy Child Jesus Catholic School.  Despite or because of a keen intellect and inquiring mind he dropped out of school before graduation.

By 17 he was on his own and drifted to the Village, a very scruffy place in those days, but hospitable to various fringes.  He supported himself with odd jobs like dishwashing and shipped out three times as a merchant seaman.  It was while hanging around the Village that he was exposed to folk music at the weekly Sunday gatherings and sing-a-longs in Washington Square Park.  He was soon joining in with his own guitar, learning a vast repertoire of songs and honing his skills

Van Ronk was already interested in music, but not so much in the Big Band sound and crooners who dominated the radio.  Instead, he was instinctively drawn to music of earlier eras.  In 1949 he began singing in barber shop quartets.  When he became interested in the revival of traditional New Orleans style jazz, he picked up the tenor banjola—an instrument with the neck of a 5-string banjo and the body of a mandolin.  He was soon playing professionally around town in traditional bands—popularly labeled Dixieland, a name disparaged by most of its practitioners

That inevitably led to an interest in rag time, which he began to interpret on the guitar “as if it were a piano.”  He created guitar arrangement for rag classics like St. Louis Tickle and Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag which brought him as a solo act the Village coffee house scene.

Van Ronk at the beginning of his career.

Van Ronk’s life and music really changed when he discovered traditional blues while rifling through the platters at a used record shop.  The vitality of the music and its authenticity immediately grabbed him.  His most important influence was Rev. Gary Davis, but he was also influenced by Furry Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Brownie McGee.  Other white singers, including Seeger, had dabbled in the blues, but Van Ronk was the first to inhabit the music with complete naturalness.  His deep, husky voice and ability to wail were perfect.  His respect for the music was total.

By the late ‘50’s Van Ronk was already the leading figure in the somewhat provincial world of Village folk music.  Although blues were a particular forte, his performances were filled with all kinds of genre-busting music—those pure old Appalachian Childe Ballads, sea shanties, work songs, jazz, old time popular and vaudeville music, and topical ballads.  He mastered them all.  He even had a record deal with Folkways which guaranteed a bit of prestige but not big selling popular success.

He had established residence in the rambling apartment on Sheridan Square where he lived for the rest of his life.  It was open to all his many friends for jams or a place to crash on the couch which hosted many notable, including Dylan for most of his first year in New York.  When he wasn’t playing in coffee houses, he sat in the audience to support his friends or hung out drinking Tullamore Dew and playing the raconteur with the customers at saloons like McSorley’s.  His appetite for all things, food, drink, women, life itself was insatiable

Van Ronk was also curious.  Despite his lack of formal education, he read widely, deeply, and seriously.  He was interested, naturally, in history, but he also taught himself to be a gourmet cook, collected native art from New Guinea and the Pacific Northwest.  He enjoyed science fiction and even contributed his own original stories to fanzines later in life.  Many thought that they were good enough to have found a more professional home.

Radical, even revolutionary politics was a particular passion.  He shunned the doctrinaire Communists and former Communists who had long dominated the Village radicalism.  On one hand he was offended by their slavish attachment to the Moscow line of the moment on the other hand he found them both stodgy and rendered timid by the traumas of the Red Scare.  For a while his friend Roy Berkley, the Trotskyite Troubadour, brought him into the orbit of the American Committee for the Fourth International (ACFI), later renamed the Workers League, dissident Trotskyite sect. 

But Van Ronk was at heart an anarchist and a syndicalist.  He became active in and a leading member of the Libertarian League—not to be confused with the current right wing use of the word with anarchist luminaries like Sam Dolgoff and Murray Bookchin.  The Libertarian League promoted equal freedom for all in a free socialist society.”  Dolgoff introduced him to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the famed but then faded revolutionary union.  He took out a Red Card and became prominent among younger members in the New York Branch.  In 1959 he and fellow Wobbly Richard Ellington collaborated on the fabled satire, The Boss’s Song Book.  Van Ronk kept up his IWW dues for the rest of his life.

In the ‘60’s and after he performed at numerous benefits for the peace movement and civil rights, but his anarchism was not welcomed by some elders and caused friction with others, including Pete Seeger with whom he was sometimes at odds and never close to despite their similar interests.  In one of his most famous activist moments, Van Ronk helped Phil Ochs organize the 1974 An Evening for Salvador Allende to protest the bloody coup d’état that overthrew and killed the Socialist Chilean President.

With long time house guest Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo in 1963.

At the end of the ‘60’s groups like the Kingston Trio and the Chad Mitchell Trio emerged out of college campuses and began selling records like rock stars.  That drew the attention of major labels to the Village folk scene in search of new talents, and in turn lured youngsters from across the country—and Canada—to try their hand in the scruffy coffee houses and clubs.  Van Ronk welcomed them and mentored them, most famously Bob Dylan.  Despite the mythology of the extremely ill Woody Guthrie passing his baton to the kid from Minnesota, Van Ronk was his real mentor, friend, and promoter.  He likewise helped Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Joni Mitchell.  Up in Cambridge teenage Joan Baez idolized him.  All these people, and other friends went on to greater popular success.  Van Ronk did not begrudge them but did wish that he could do the same.  He moved to the more pop oriented Verve label and his albums sold modestly, but steadily.  He was held back by his reluctance to long leave his beloved Village, which by this time had bestowed the unofficial title of the Mayor of McDougal Street.  He might dash off for a weekend festival or for a quick trip up to Cambridge and Boston, but he would not, for the most part, tour extensively, which was necessary to bring his music to a wider audience.

Once, when Chicago, was making its bid to be a second front for folk music, Van Ronk took his famous trip to the Windy City to audition at the famous Gate of Horn where Bob Gibson, Hamilton Camp, Josh White, and others were making their mark.  Inexplicably, the club turned him down, a bitter disappointment.  The experience became a central part of the Coen Brother’s film.

Van Ronk often seemed to have just plain bad luck, narrowly missing opportunities to break out into national stardom.  In 1961 he was the first choice of manager Albert Grossman for the folk/pop trio he was trying to put together Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers.  But Grossman decided that Van Ronk was too idiosyncratic, independent, and his voice not sweet enough for the sound he envision.  Instead, Noel Stookey became Paul.

His pal Bob Dylan recorded his arrangement of the old New Orleans blues House of the Rising Sun without his permission and before he could record it himself.  He saw the same arrangement become a huge hit for The Animals.  Dylan’s casual betrayal temporarily cooled their relationship, although they reconciled. 

In 1964 was asked to form a jug band to cash in on the popularity of Jim Kweskin and enlisted some of the best and most versatile pickers in the city for the project including, Sam Charters, Barry Kornfield, Artie Rose, and Danny Kalb.  Despite the talented line up and glowing reviews Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jug Stompers failed to become a hit.

Van Ronk's electric folk/rock album.

It was not Van Ronk’s last stab at a band.  In 1967 with Kornfield this time as producer he formed an electric—and eclecticfolk rock band called Dave van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters.  The song selection was all over the place—the kitschy ‘50’s novelty rock song Ally Oop, Jimmy Van Heusen’s Swing on a Star, Dink’s Song as collected and arranged by Bess and Allen Lomax, and Rev. Gary Davis’s Cocaine.  But the album also contained versions of two songs by a young favorite—Joni Mitchell—Chelsea Morning and Both Sides Now, which Van Ronk had renamed, to Mitchell’s displeasure Clouds.  She had not yet recorded either song and was herself not well known.  Despite her resentment over the title switch, Mitchell always said that the cut on this record was her favorite version of her most iconic song.  Once again, critics were impressed and the album sold moderately well, but did not break out.  The band dissolved, Verve dropped him, and Van Ronk returned to solo work.

He did not issue another album until 1971, the simply titled Van Ronk for Polydor.  This album included more Mitchell, Leonard Cohn’s Bird on the Wire, Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, Jacques  Brell’s the Port of Amsterdam, Bertolt Brecht’s Legend of the Dead Soldier, as well as two rare—for him—original songs.  It was a moody, moving masterpiece growled with deep emotion that ended with the ironic choice of Johnny Mercer’s and Harold Arlen’s Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.  Another critical darling that the public didn’t get.

On last near miss was his discovery of the song The Gambler by country music songwriter Don Schlitz.  He recognized it as a potential hit.  But his new label, Philo, was both dedicated to a hard core folk audience and unwilling to promote a single.  Van Ronk had to take a pass.  In 1979, of course Kenny Rogers—previously a mid-pack country singer—broke out to superstardom and a #1 hit on three Billboard Charts

By this time, the Folk revival had long petered out.  Many of his friends and the musicians he had mentored left the Village for Woodstock, California, and Nashville.  Van Ronk, viscerally attached to the city and Village, refused to follow them.  He remained the Mayor of McDougal Street, but it was not the same.

On the eve of his birthday, June 28, 1969, Van Ronk was drinking with friends when he went outside the bar to find out what kind of disturbance was going on.  He found police and the Gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn in a near pitch battle following a vice raid.  Ever ready to lend a hand to the underdog and oppressed, he joined the melee.  A towering, burly man with a leonine head of hair and shaggy beard, he became a target for the cops who overpowered him and dragged him inside the Inn to be arrested.  He was charged with throwing a rock at police, which he denied.  He was one of 13 arrested on the first night of the rebellion which became the rallying cry of the Gay Liberation Movement.

Van Ronk and first wife and manager Terri Thall.

Van Ronk lived with Terri Thal for 11 years, the last 7 as husband and wife after they met in 1957.  She became his manager and accomplice, and was the first manager for Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and others.  After they parted on amicable terms, he had another long term relationship before marrying Andrea Vuocolo in 1988.  They remained devoted the rest of his life.

Despite waning fame, and eventually health problems, Van Ronk never really retired.  He continued to perform where he could and made more albums.  He had a small but devoted following.  Old friends like Dylan would occasionally visit his old apartment.  His last public concert was in Atlanta, not New York City, a few months before his death.

Van Ronk in Utah Phillips’ clown nose at the Parting Glass in Saratoga Springs, NY, after Lena Spencer’s 1989 memorial service. With Anna McGarrigle, Phillips, and Roy Bookbinder.

On February 10, 2002, he died of heart failure in a New York City hospital following surgery for colon cancer.

Two years later in perhaps the tribute that would have meant the most to him, the block the street in front of his long-time apartment was officially named Dave Van Ronk Street.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Gadsden’s Land Grab Completed Land Theft from Mexico

In 1953 the Post Office celebrated the centennial of the Gadsden Purchase with a commemorative stamp.

In 1853 a lot of Mexicans woke up to discover that they were living in another country in which at best they were third class citizens and at worst considered vermin to be erased at the earliest opportunityA shady international real estate scheme pushed the Mexican/US boarder south, deep into the deserts of the future states of New Mexico and Arizona.  Without that land grab desperate Central American refugees would have had a hell of a lot longer walk to seek asylum and Trump’s Wall even more useless.

The boundaries of the continental United States were expanded for a final time when President Franklin Pierce signed the agreement for the Gadsden Purchase on June 29, 1853.  The purchase added 29,670 square miles south of the Gila River and west of the Río Grande to what was then New Mexico Territory.  The land included the Mesilla Valley which had been identified as the logical route for a southern transcontinental railway which the slave holding South hoped would tie them to California and bring that state, or a divided southern half of it, into the slave holding orbit

Negotiations with the Mexican government, first initiated by the James Buchanan administration, were also meant to clear up boundary issues left unresolved the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War and resulted in the acquisition of much of the Southwest and California by the United States.  The Mexican government was also interested in large compensation from America for failing to live up to the terms of the treaty by stopping wide-spread raiding into Mexico by Apache and Comanche tribes from U.S. Territory. 

                                    Democrat President Franklin Pierce, a Northern man of Southern principles.

Democrat Pierce, though a New Englander, was Doughface, was a “Northern man with Southern sympathies”. At the suggestion of his Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, Pierce selected South Carolina born southern firebrand James Gadsden as Ambassador to Mexico with instructions to reach an agreement on border issues and to secure permission to build a railroad or canal across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

But Gadsden had no interest in furthering the scheme for an Isthmus railroad.  Instead he was a promoter of, and had a financial interest in, a potential railroad through the Mesilla Valley.

Gadsden was a former Army officer who had served with Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and against Indians in Florida.  In 1832 he resigned from the Army to accept appoint by President Jackson as one of the Commissioners in charge of Seminole removal from Florida and Georgia, a job he perused with ruthless enthusiasm.  He broke with his old commander and political sponsor, however, during the South Carolina Nullification crisis in 1831 and was a supporter of John C. Calhoun. 

                    Gadsden as a young Army Lieutenant, the only known image of him.

As a member of the South Carolina legislature in 1850, he advocated secession from the Union because of the admission of California as a free state.  At the time he was also President of the South Carolina Canal and Railway Co. and was engaged in plans to connect all southern railroads into a unified network.  In 1847 he had helped convene a convention of southern railroads in Memphis to that end. The convention endorsed establishing the southern transcontinental route although it failed to agree on how to finance it.

After California was admitted, Gadsden entered a scheme with Southern sympathizers in the state to divide it in two, with the southern half embracing slavery, including the use of slave labor to build the southern railroad.  He proposed importing 1200 settlers from South Carolina and Florida along with “not less than Two Thousand of their African Domestics” to populate a special rural district that would ape the Southern plantation economy by raising cotton, rice, and sugar cane.  Although this proposal died in the state legislature, it was well known in Washington, as was Gadsden’s financial interests in the southern railroad project.

None-the-less, Gadsden was tapped as negotiator.  Secretary of State William L. Marcy gave him clear instructions to secure the Mesilla Valley for the purposes of building a railroad through it, convince Mexico that the US had done its best regarding the Indian raids, and elicit Mexican cooperation in efforts by US citizens to build across the Tenhuantepec isthmus.  

                    Santa Anna in 1853, President of Mexico for the 7th and final time.

Gadsden arrived in Mexico City to find General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had been returned to the Mexican Presidency for the seventh and final time.  As an ardent nationalist Santa Anna was opposed to territorial concessions to the U.S. and determined to get reparations for continued Indian raids.  Moreover, he was deeply offended by Gadsden’s brusque, insulting demeanor.  Gadsden blithely told the President that “the spirit of the times” would inevitably lead to the secession of Mexico’s northern states and demanded that he sell most or all of the states of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Baja California. 

Mexico, as usual, was in political and financial turmoil at the time.  Gadsden soon realized that Santa Anna desperately needed cash to revive and rearm the Mexican Army in defense of expected aggression by the American government and from Filibusterers like William Walker who had recently tried to capture Baja California with 50 men. 

After informing Marcy of the Santa Anna’s desperation, Gadsen received new instructions to negotiate for the sale of six large parcels of land and that the price for them would include reparations for the Indian raids and absolution from any U.S. responsibility for future raids.  Prices ranged from $50 million for Baja California and large swaths of the northern Mexico states to $15 million for the main proposed railroad corridor along the Mesilla Valley. 

He was also instructed to keep pressing for the Tenhuantepec isthmus route.  Gadsden soon abandoned all pretext of seeking the isthmus route, which would have been in competition with the proposed southern transcontinental route.  He also quit pressing for wider land concessions in order to quickly secure his railroad route. 

In the end Santa Anna was glad to sell mostly wasteland which would also serve as a buffer between Mexico and the hostile tribes to the U.S. for $15 million. 

The U.S. Cabinet began reviewing the treaty in January of 1854 and although Jefferson Davis was disappointed that further territorial concessions were not obtained and others were upset by the loss of the Isthmus route, the treaty was sent to an uncertain fate in Congress in February.

There it immediately became ensnared in sectional conflict over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the extension of slavery to new western territories.  Many Northern senators were particularly concerned about the possibility of the southern railroad, which would have both conflicted with their own interests in a northern route and possibly become a “conduit of chattel slavery into the West.”  On April 17 the Senate voted 27 to 18 in favor of the treaty, falling three votes short of the necessary two-thirds required for approval.

The final version of the Gadsden Purchase overlaid on a map of modern Arizona and New Mexico.

Davis urged that the President save the treaty by accepting several modifications including re-opening the possibility of the Isthmus route, giving the U.S. the right to use “when it may feel sanctioned and warranted by the public or international law” in protection of construction of a canal or railroad across the Isthmus, and a reduction of territorial concession by 9,000 square miles with a corresponding drop in purchase price of $10 million.  The changes were enough to secure additional northern votes and the treaty finally passed by a vote of 32 to 12. 

Gadsden presented the amended treaty to Santa Anna who reluctantly agreed.  No progress was ever made on securing concessions for the Isthmus of Tehuantepec project.  In the end, the treaty only really secured a real estate deal covering some very inhospitable desert land.

Santa Anna’s popularity in Mexico declined because of agreeing to what was seen as yet another humiliating concession to the U.S. and because he squandered the infusion of hard cash from the purchase.  He was removed from power for the final time by the Ayutla Rebellion of 1854.  

The official hand-over of the Gadsden Purchase in a ceremony a Mesilla, New Mexico, right where Gadsden and his cronies wanted to run their transcontinental railroad to California.  

In the U.S. the political fallout over the ratification debate and hardening sectional hostilities meant that the railroad through the Mesilla Valley would never be built.  During the Civil War most of the purchase ended up in the newly created Territory of Arizona.  When the Southern Pacific Railroad finally built a southern route in the 1880’s it did not follow the Mesilla Valley, but went further north along a line only partially within the Gadsden Purchase. 

Today the land includes Tucson, Bisbee, and Yuma Arizona but is otherwise sparsely populated and mostly owned by the Federal Government as Indian reservations, conservation land, and military reservations.  The in the last census the total population in the Purchase area was about 1,373,000 with three-quarters of the people residing in the Tucson metropolitan aria.

Many of the brown skinned residents of the area descend from folks who were there when it was Mexican territory.  Yet in modern Arizona they were often swept up in the anti-immigrant hysteria that was codified in that state’s draconian laws several years ago before much of their content was declared Unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  Today when they are stopped by Border Patrol Agents and required to show identification, they complained loudly—and rightly—that “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”  Several U.S. Citizens have been swooped up anyway and spent days, weeks, even months in custody.



Monday, June 28, 2021

The Tree With the Dinner Plate Leaves and Other Plantings of Hope

The Murfin Estate catalpa in bloom.

Note:  Revisiting a post that first ran eight years ago. The tree got bigger, much bigger. Its branches have spread wide across our side yard offering deep, cool shade.  The boughs stretch almost to the sidewalk alongside the house and the crown now towers over our roof.  Meanwhile other investments in the future have been made in the yard.  A volunteer maple seedling that sprang up in an inconvenient spot was transplanted to the boulevard along Ridge Avenue eight years ago by my grandson.  Nick’s tree is now thriving and more than 12 feet tall. Seven years ago, Kathy planted a foot high spruce out by the garage to replace the towering 40 footer that blew over in the big storm a few years ago. It grows more than a foot a year, its bright green new growth shoots still growing practically by the minute.   Three years ago, Kathy and I collaborated in putting in young lilac bushes flanking the sidewalk from Ridge Ave. to the house.  The bushes grow more slowly than any of the trees, but after some decades should form a glorious arch gate.  We will not last that long, but with luck our living legacies will grace the lives of whoever comes after.

Nick's tree--a volunteer maple eight years after been planted as seedling.

My wife Kathy and I enjoyed watching birds at a feeder and bath outside the kitchen window of our extremely humble abode in Crystal Lake, Illinois

The great American elms that once shaded that side yard succumbed to disease and were removed more than twenty years ago leaving the yard sun-parched on hot summer afternoons.  So we wanted to plant a tree near the feeder to help attract birds and eventually shade the house.

One Sunday maybe eighteen years ago I came home with a stick barely thicker than my thumb and maybe two feet tall.  It was allegedly a catalpa tree.  We planted that stick a few feet from the bird feeder.  And we waited.

After the first year when just two brave twigs emerged from the stick, you could actually see the damn thing grow day by day.

I like to bend a branch down and show visitors the two or three sets of new leaves nestling like Russian dolls inside the wreath of earlier growth at the tip of a green shoot which has grown several inches in the less than a month since buds first appeared after a late cool spring.  The tree could grow another foot or more in all directions this year before the season ends.

Those catalpa dinner plate size leaves and flower clusters.

The tree now looms much higher than the peak of the roof of our ranch house, its numerous branches thick with heart shaped leaves the size of a dinner plates, its trunk the girth of a sturdy elephant’s leg.   It shades the kitchen window now in the fierce late afternoon sun but if so overgrew the bird feeders that we couldn’t keep the squirrels from launching themselves and gorging on $50 of seed and feed a week.  Sadly, we had to give up the feeding station.  

Right now, the tree is bursting with clusters of white flowers.   In the fall it will develop long thin, bean-like pods which will cling to the bare tree over the winter finally dropping one by with the new growth next spring.

Kathy's tree--a spruce that quickly became way to tall to top with a star a Christmas.

A lot of folks think of catalpas as virtual weed trees because of the litter of dropped pods and because those enormous leaves do not get brightly colored in the fall, but slowly fade to an ugly olive green, wither and drop when decent trees are already bare.  A lot of folks think that those things make it a hassle and a nuisance

Most people prefer the slow growing oak or a more vigorous maple.  They have their charms as well.  Planting an oak is a ticket into the future, a legacy.  Its eventual shade may not be as intense, but it will spread even further.  The sturdy trunk will withstand gales that would break or uproot the catalpa.  And, if left undisturbed, it will stand for centuries after the stump of the short-lived catalpa has rotted away.

We compromised between the two and added Nick’s little maple a few years ago which will mature into a formidable tree with bright yellow fall foliage in another decade.

Long after Kathy and I are gone these young lilacs will form an archway over the side entrance to our property.

But I gain enormous satisfaction and a peculiar connection to nature watching that odd, weed of a tree.

But if I was thinking of my grandchildren and descendants, I should plant an acorn—and soon. 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Cringe Worthy Murfin Verse Juvenalia Unearthed

The pseudo-hippie cover of  the 1967 Apotheosis, the student literary magazine of Niles Township West Highschool in Skokie, Illinois.

A few years ago, I unearthed the 1967 issue of Apotheosis, the grandiosely named student literary magazine of Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois.  I was significantly over-represented with prose short-short stories which were ever-so-earnestly written.  But the little magazine was also littered with my juvenile poetry. 

Ouch!  The poems were generally as excruciating as you would image.  There were three short pieces inspired by my exposure that year to e. e. cummings and Lawrence Ferlinghetti—my stab at off-beat bohemianism

With my late twin brother Tim (on top) a decked out for Cheyenne Frontier Days the summer before 1st Grade.

Today I am inflicting on you the longest piece of all, which occupied a whole page in two columns all by itself.  It was a memoir piece which evoked the playground of Churchill Elementary School in Cheyenne, Wyoming circa 1955 when I was six years old and in first grade.  The memories were like random snapshots found years later in a shoe box buried in a corner of the basementfragmented and without context, the subjects at best hazily recalled. 

Those memories may have been sharper to the 17 year old who wrote them than to the 72-year-old rereading them today.

The piece would have been better off as a prose memoir, but I was determined, for some reason to hammer it into a poem.  That reason might have been Dylan Thomass memory poems, although my work lacked all his lyricism.  I used a clunky devise of variations on the opening lines of each stanza.

A couple of notes of explanation are required.  First, the long blue busses described were Air Force vehicles delivering the children of personnel from Frances E. Warren Air Force Base to the school.  There were no yellow school busses because the rest of us lived close enough to the old school building to walk.

The Black girl was, I believe looking back on it, Haitian.  Just how she ever got to Cheyenne is anyone’s guess.  It must have been a terribly hard experience for her.  I am sure gaping dolts like me didn’t make it any easier.  She was the first Black person I ever saw.  One day I pretended to lose something in the gravel by the high slide so I could get down on my hands and knees and crawl over to where she was standing to stare close-up to the black skin of her thin legs above her white socks.

It must have been a horrible and humiliating experience for her.  Made worse by the fact that I never once, for all my curiosity spoke to her the entire year. 

Innocence, in retrospect, was not all that innocent at all.

What I Remember of Play


I remember-

Straw yellow sunlight

Filtered through trees

That seemed so big

God must have been at their tops, 

Looking down on

Me as I played on the gravel  

And sat in their roots to rest.


And I remember­

The suntan brick

Of the school building

Always looking dusty,

Even after rain washed it.

The high, wide windows

Looked down on the

Playground below. 


This I remember­

Only her hair, 

Only her plain brown hair

Pulled back in a bun

With a smell that

Excited my nose.

She was but six

And I was but five

As we sat in the Roots together.


And this to remember­

Boys abreast up in a line

Then charging, shouting

At the top of our lungs, 

“Kill the Japs,  

Kill the Nazis,

We’ll win!”

And the little toy flag

That fell in the dirt

            and was solemnly burned.


           This is remembered-

Rosa had dark brown skin

And fine, windblown hair,

But her dress was thin

And its colors faded.

She never spoke but

Always looked through

Frightened, dark eyes.


I remember this-

Long blue busses

Coming every morning,

Leaving every night.

Friends getting on with the

Driver In green uniform

And stiff cap, And me always

Staying behind


This to remember­

Billy was smaller by far

Than the rest of the boys who

Played in the yard.

But it was Billy

Who led us in games 

and shouted the loudest at play.


And I remember this­

The bean tree stood

In the corner of the yard.

And in the fall the boys

Would fight to see

Who could get the most

Of the long black, stiff beans.


And this is remembered­

From the top of the slide

I could look down at the sun

Shining off its slick face 

And how tall I felt

Looming down

On my friends in

 the school yard far below.


I can remember­

The little girl in

The frilly pink dress

Whose language I did not know, 

And did not care to know,

for she was Black 

And I did not

Know why she was Black.


But most I remember-

A dream that never was,

Shaded by trees from

The straw yellow sunlight,

I got on the blue bus

And the girl with her hair tied up in a bun

Said, “Goodbye,

Take good care of him.”

As the bus pulled away

I knew that I

Would never return

To the play yard,

And that was the 

End of my youth.


—Pat Murfin ‘67