Out in the Cold Rain and Snow

Serendipity has been circumventing my attempts to celebrate the winter solstice in any true style for several years in a row. This year I get to spend the 21st on a plane. I hope I have a window seat.

The other day I was walking on River Road in Sunderland at around one in the afternoon, getting towards the end of our first big snow storm. The precipitation had turned to a fine sleet, and underfoot were four inches of snow topped by an inch and a half of hard slush. I followed other people’s footprints when I could, but mostly they’d been left hours ago and had healed over with ice.

I was walking by a gap between farmhouses when I heard something from the big, empty field behind them. Music. A couple of chords played on a big ole synth pipe organ, strung together into part of a melody. The sequence repeated itself once, then ceased. I wasn’t sure if I’d really heard it, so I stood there in the iced-over driveway for a minute, looking around at the clapboards and the maple trees for a light in a window, an open garage door. Something that might hint at the source of the sound. Nobody was out.

After a minute I heard whoever it was play through the same half-melody once more. I recognized it, but couldn’t place it. Maybe it was part of a Christmas song. I wanted to figure out how I knew it, and who was playing it.

Fairies? Angels? The Dead?

I turned away from the road, between the farmhouses and into the field, into the wind, the wet ice coming down on my face, turning it numb. Straight ahead over the pines and hemlocks at the far side of the field were the profile of Mt. Toby and the Bull Hill bluffs. Left, a church spire—no, it was the tower of the Blue Heron. The building had been town hall once, but never a church. No synth organ music issued from any of the above. I didn’t hear it again.

The wool coat I had on was getting close to soaked-through. I gave up, turned south over the crunching, sopping-wet fields towards home.

Casey Jones

Long have I been familiar with the Grateful Dead ballad of that name, at whose lyrics I once giggled mischievously and thought I was getting away with something as I listened on my walkman headphones in bed late of a school night:

Come round the bend
You know it’s the end
The fireman screams and
The engine just gleams
Drivin’ that train
High on cocaine
Casey Jones you better
watch your speed

Years later I heard the traditional version by Mississippi John Hurt, with that one eerie verse that always sticks in my head, about his wife’s cold practicality upon hearing of her husband’s death:

Mrs. Casey when she heard the news
Sitting on her bedside, she was lacing up her shoes
Children, children now hold your breath
You will draw a pension at your Papa’s death

And of course there’s the Johnny Cash version… and Josh Ritter has a line about him in To the Dogs or Whoever, which I figured was a reference to all these other roots folk songs, since that’s sort of his M.O…. So I always assumed Casey Jones to be a purely folkloric figure, like Clementine, Peggy-o, John Henry, Fennario and Ichabod Crane. Specifically, I thought he was ye archetypal train engineer, in blue and white striped overalls with soot all over his face and a corncob pipe in his mouth, whistling dixie as he drove The Little Engine that Could up that mountain.

Not so, as it turns out. In fact, Casey Jones was a real, flesh and blood train conductor in the 1890s, who was so dedicated to his job and so good at it that he ended up as a national hero, with his face on a stamp and everything. He once saved a little girl from getting run over by a train by climbing down out of the cab onto the cowcatcher and snatching her up right off the tracks. He drove the famous “cannonball run” at eighty miles an hour between Chicago and New Orleans. He had a special way of blowing a train whistle so that whenever a train he was driving pulled into a station, you knew it was him at the tiller. And in 1900, on a densely foggy night passing through Memphis, Tennessee, he stayed onboard a doomed locomotive to save its passengers and crew. There was a stationary train idling on the same track as his own, and though he couldn’t prevent the collision, he managed to slow the train enough before impact that he himself was the only casualty.

Hence all these songs about him.

And what do you know, there’s an even older version of the song, by a fellow named Wallace Saunders, who was a friend of the real Casey Jones and worked with him on the railroad, which tells the story of his death.

Trust research to destroy your childhood illusions.

What the hell is a sun machine?

This question occurred to me thanks to the shuffle switch on my ipode, which, on a long, lonely drive through Vermont in a wet snowstorm, presented me, all out of context, with “Memory of a Free Festival”: the distantly trippy, elegiac-in-the-face-of-joyful, seven-minute final track off David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Ostensibly, it’s a jangly-organ folk ballad celebrating free love and boundless hippie optimism, with a hint of the wonderful irony for which I so love Bowie:

We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn’t, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day

But all that stuff trails off around the three minute mark, and for the final four minutes we get a wild cacophony of toy-piano tinkling, trombone-kazoo-clapping and distant fairy laughter, over which Bowie and a chorus of euphoric voices chant, over and over:

The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party

Which I presume we are to interpret as a return to our regularly scheduled glammed-out alien space messiah Bowie. Take the green acid so when Ashtar and the Aquarians get here, they’ll know you’re one of the enlightened and you’ll get to ride off with them on the crystal ship.

Goofy velour pantsuit cliche notwithstanding, however, this was kind of a revelatory moment for me. Growing up, I had a completely different association with the term “sun machine”, based on a Percy Hill song of comparable epic length, but a very different aesthetic: a white boy jam-band soul-funk anthem, which goes like this:

I don’t care if the world may end
I’ll be just fine inside my sun machine
I cannot say my friends
when I’ll put down this foolish game
I hope it never ends
And time will never tell

Hallucinogens and benevolent alien abductions? Yeah, maybe. But that’s not what I thought at the time. I always assumed it was a reference to Ray Bradbury. In Dandelion Wine, a loving suburban husband, father of two, and inventor cribbed straight from the American Dream, sets out to build a Happiness Machine in his garage, basically a phone booth full of visions of everything you most desire. It nearly destroys him and his family.

His wife was quieter now. “Leo, the mistake you made is you forgot some hour, some day, we all got to climb out of that thing and go back to dirty dishes and the beds not made. While you’re in that thing, sure, a sunset lasts forever almost, the air smells good, the temperature is fine. All the things you want to last, last. But outside, the children wait on lunch, the clothes need buttons. And then let’s be frank, Leo, how long can you look at a sunset? Who wants a sunset to last? Who wants perfect temperature? Who wants air smelling good always? So after awhile, who would notice? Better, for a minute or two, a sunset. After that, let’s have something else. People are like that, Leo. How could you forget?”

But Dandelion Wine is about time and memory and regret, not neon angelic visions. In 1957, when Bradbury wrote it, LSD existed and was legal, but I don’t think it was nearly the pop phenomenon it would have needed to be for Bradbury’s readership to get the reference–particularly in the context of the half-remembered halcyon summer 1928 suburbia of the novel.

So I don’t know. Maybe there’s no connection between Bradbury, the Bowie song, and the impossible dreams of my youth.

Or maybe, just maybe, this is another one of those monumental metaphors that has always been and will always be waiting somewhere in the back of every human consciousness, waiting around for the dawn or the re-dawn of the industrial age so it makes sense again, waiting for somebody to write a song or a story to invoke it so it can share its universal, esoteric wisdom with the world.

Because I go and google “sun machine” and look: there’s a band, three different albums by three other bands, a computer company, a german heating company, and look, even a grandiloquent hoax perpetrated at the 1904 St. Louis World fair, all operating under that name!

Jeez, I wonder if everybody else is referencing this thing?

Wouldn’t that be cool.

Fetch Wood, Carry Water

is the title of a Peter Rowan song I’ve been kicking around in my head for awhile. Like most of Peter Rowan’s stuff, it has a certain ageless quality that makes me feel like I’ve known it all my life. When I first heard it, I sort of assumed it must belong to the same storied vernacular as songs like Whiskey in the Jar, Stagger Lee, Jack-A-Roe, Man of Constant Sorrow, songs that have existed for so long in so many different versions nobody knows who wrote them anymore, and it feels perfectly possible nobody wrote them at all, they just appeared, fully formed, out of the fabric of the universe just in time for the invention of the fiddle. Archetypal. Like the figure of a Michelangelo slave inside living granite waiting for the chisel.

There are stories like that too.

When I hear something like that for the first time, I have a tendency to go digging for its history, trying to feel out the shapes of the ideas that formed its roots. I figure for an element of story to hang on so long, to endure so many changes and keep going, is a sign that there’s some fundamental truth at its core, some lesson to be learned. The study of the horned god I undertook for last year’s solstice is an example of this; I’ve done it with King Lear, Baba Yaga, the myth of the Flood.

I tried to do this with “Fetch Wood, Carry Water”, and found out I was wrong. Rowan wrote it in 2001; that’s as far back as the song’s history goes.

Or so I believed until the other day, when I came across the following Buddhist proverb in some insane occult/new age literature, while researching the concept of spiritual ascension:

Before enlightenment, fetch wood, carry water. After enlightenment, fetch wood, carry water.

Turns out Peter Rowan, bluegrass balladeer, pulled those lyrics out of Eastern philosophy and used them to write a reggae song. That is exactly the kind of universal wisdom I’m looking for.

Now those words keep coming back to me, whatever I’m doing.

I’m pretty sure the point of these koan thingies is not to try to explicate all the wisdom out of them, but to contemplate in silence, glean from them what lessons you can without having to put it into words.

But words are kind of the point for me—both means and end, if you know what I mean.

Suffice it to say I think there’s a powerful message here for the struggling writer. It’s about perseverance, about knowing what’s essential, and about the importance of returning often to the fundamentals no matter how far one may stray. There’s no such thing as too much enlightenment. In fact, you can never have enough. But you’ll always need water and wood.

Here’s a version of the Peter Rowan song I’m pretty sure it is legal for me to share:
“Fetch Wood, Carry Water” – Peter Rowan & Donna the Buffalo, 5-2-2001 (13.5 mb)