Category: Southern living

Spoonful Blues

It’s all I want honey, in this creation is a…spoonful
I go to bed, get up and wanna fight ’bout a…spoonful…

~ Charley Patton, “Spoonful Blues” (1929)dust

Last fall I took up Middle Eastern cooking, specifically dishes from the Levant region. In addition to preparing kabobs and salads with my wife I also got into making homemade booza, a sticky Arabic ice cream made famous at the Bakdash parlor in Al-Hamidiyah souq, Damascus, Syria. While visiting a nearby halal market to buy ingredients I noticed on the shelf a stack of boxes of Lipton Dust tea. This is the cheap brand Unilever ships to Cairo and Damascus. I decided to give it a spin.

Back at the house I put a spoonful of Dust into a coffee filter and ran boiling water through it. The tea that filled my mug was dark. Opaque. I stirred in some sugar and poured it over ice (we’re in the South where iced tea rules). The color in the glass was a dark burgundy. The flavor took me right back to sultry summers in the Carolina Piedmont, when my mom made pitchers of bold, refreshing tea unlike anything I’ve tasted since.

The caffeine kick was exhilarating. I was hooked.

Lipton? Really? This reminded me of that golden moment at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival when bluesman Mississippi John Hurt leaned into the microphone and told a crowd of hipsters, “Just one spoonful of Maxwell House is better than a whole cup of that other [trendy] coffee.” It also underscored the fact that the Lipton sold in U.S. grocery stores is substantially weaker, not what mom used to make.

Wouldn’t you know it. A couple of weeks ago my wife went by the halal market and reported that Dust was no longer in stock. In disbelief I went back last week. Still not there. The worried man behind the counter begged me to try a bag of Çaykur black tea from Turkey. I would have none of it (among other things Dust is cheaper).

I was edgy. Twitchy. I walked out.

I can’t buy Dust online. I’ve looked everywhere. Amazon? No. Ebay? No. There’s an Egyptian site for it but NO FREAKING ORDER FORM.

Hey. Unilever. Customer here in North Carolina who would like to buy mass quantities of your junk. COME ON, MAN!!!

Can anybody, please, help a brother out? Just a spoonful…


Dogs of Peace Still Guide You Home

DogsOfPeace_Heel_cover (1)The cool thing growing up the son of a disc jockey was connecting with him through the radio as he spun the great tunes from the seminal period 1967-76. By the time I came of age my musical sensibilities were set in stone — hence, the ’80s were a downer for me while the ’90s marked something of a return to form.

In the summer of ’96 I bought a copy of Speak by Dogs of Peace, what was thought to be a one-off from a foursome of Nashville session players: Gordon Kennedy (guitar, vocals), Jimmie Lee Sloas (bass, vocals), Blair Masters (keyboards, bgv’s), and John Hammond on drums. I won’t take the space here list the luminaries these guys have played with or for, or produced. They’re musicians’ musicians, so unsurprisingly Speak was easily among the highlights of the decade.

My best buddy and former workmate is himself a guitarist with gigging and recording experience. I would bring my cassette copy of Speak and we would blast it in the car while working. We analyzed it. We argued its technical details. We caught its reference points: Wings, Pink Floyd, James Gang, Hendrix, among others. He was able to break down Kennedy’s guitar leads and explain how he achieved certain tones, as on “Do You Know,” whose twin solos match the aching grandeur of Gilmour on “Comfortably Numb.”

Unwinding from the day I’d go down to the basement and play it again, having sent my daughters (13 and 11 at the time) to bed. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were listening, too. Especially to “Thrown Away” — they loved that track. It spoke to them at those transitional ages. Proud of those gals for their good musical tastes. Chips off the old block.


                                     Can’t sleep without the light on…

But things change over twenty years. I confess I’m lost when it comes to today’s hipster music. No offense, but I don’t get what’s so enthralling about ukuleles, glockenspiels, dead-pan lead vocals and wordless choruses that go,

oohhhh-wayyy-oohhh, oh-oh way-ay, oh-oh-whoah….

[probably the generation that grew up watching Arthur and caught that episode about the Finnish hologram band, BINKY]

Anyway, it’s a relief that Dogs of Peace weren’t an one-off after all. After twenty years of doing myriad other things the group reformed and released Heel in April of this year. The cover art and title allude to the proto-evangel in Genesis 3:15: God curses the serpent for his deceit and promises that the “seed of the woman,” i.e. the virgin-born son, would crush the serpent’s head (check out the bonus track, “Crush”) — though the serpent would manage to inflict a deadly wound to his heel.

The title also plays on the “dog” metaphor.

Heel is arranged in three sets of three songs, with a closing medley/postlude. The opening tracks come out of the blocks big and bold: detonating drums, swirling strings, muscular riffs. They combine a snarling guitar tone a la Jimmy Page with an expanding, boiling thunderhead of a sound reminiscent of Kerry Livgren’s arrangements. While the most bombastic of the album, these songs establish a more chiseled, classic rock sound than the alt edge of the first record. They also introduce recurring themes: intercession (“One Flight Away”), interposition (“Sacrifice”), and light/darkness:

Looking at the painting of Van Gogh’s Starry Night / with a brush he paints a riddle / a church in the middle, but somebody’s turned out the light… (“Dark Without”)

The second trio of songs finds the band broadening the scope, shifting between moods while infusing the music with their characteristic humor. “All This For a Piece of Fruit” winsomely plays on the fall of human nature — with more than a enough cowbell to fill Bruce Dickinson’s prescription. And a few of those previously unnamed luminaries begin to show up: Ricky Skaggs showcases his mandolin on “Only the Gold,” but this isn’t a salute to Dr. Ralph Stanley (deserving as he is). Rather, Steely Dan-tight harmonies punch through an Alan Parsons “I Robot” soundscape at breakneck pace. Skagg’s mandolin solo is sublime beyond words.

Speaking of Steely Dan, piano ace Michael Omartian makes his cameo as the album transitions into the third section, opening with one of the its best tracks, “Friend of the Groom.” A jocose nod to John 3:29, this is straight-up Southern rock more stout than a pot of black coffee. Fat guitar, funky bass, and Omartian’s boogie piano create conditions for a heavy foot on the gas pedal. You can tell the band is into it: at the intro to the second verse one voice says “Yep” while another answers “Right.”

Shifting gears, the elegant “Healed” is graced with a poignant guitar solo from guest Peter Frampton. It’s a meditation on what mortality has been transformed into for believers: we might not leave this present cosmos cured, but we can assuredly leave it healed. More on that in a moment.

Meanwhile, another confession: I’m not into praise and worship music. Visiting churches that use this style I’m the guy hands-in-pockets staring at the screen while everyone else is enraptured, eyes closed, singing the lines from memory. But if the songs were more like “He’s the Light of the Word” I might get into it. No congregation could sing at this level, but I could envision a tastefully scaled-down version making the rounds in churches. Whiteheart’s Rick Florian, PFR’s Joel Hanson, and the McCrary Sisters join in to create a gospel choir for a rousing outro. Following a change of key one of the McCrary’s begins to sing and Sloas hits a booming note on his bass that makes the hair on the back of my neck tingle.

The final verse declares:

Jesus, he is matchless / see the wounds of God’s wrath / Brilliant in the chaos / illuminating my path…

A deeply held evangelical conviction is that Christ’s death deflects God’s wrath for sin away from those who believe in him, i.e. substitutionary atonement. This idea, based on passages like Isaiah 53:4-8 and the reflections of St. Anselm and John Calvin, has in more recent times fallen out of favor, giving way to Christus Victor and other plausible theories of the efficacy of his death. But we’re talking about Christ’s death, a matter of cosmic weight. I agree with most of these models — including the sinner’s substitute idea.

I was recently queried about this by some hipsters.

“Why, yes,” I responded. “I do happen to believe in it.”

Their smiles faded. I could see the look in their eyes: Old guy holding to a 15th century heresy. Everybody keep cool, keep smiling, and wave your hands…

oohhhh-wayyy-oohhh, oh-oh way-ay, oh-oh-whoah….

Yeah, whatever. Like I said, some things change over twenty years.

In the time that’s passed since 1996 I’ve added three more children to my quiver. A job change in 2012 separated me from my guitar-playing sidekick and the daily camaraderie we enjoyed. My dad developed Alzheimer’s. Two winters ago his condition took a decisive turn for the worse. Around that time one of my daughters — the one who was 11 when Speak came out — gave birth to a second grandchild, a baby girl, via c-section. A couple of days later my gal started hemorrhaging. The bleeding was out of control; she faded in and out as doctor’s struggled to stabilize her condition.

It’s a drama played out thousands of times a day in hospitals, nursing homes, accident scenes, battlefields and other scenes across the globe. We who stand by and watch and pray ask ourselves: Did I say and do all the right things?

Helplessness isn’t the right word. Irrelevance is probably closer. Because whether loved ones pass through the dark valley or come back out of it, only the Shepherd can go with them, lighting the way.

Against all instinct and understanding, this is the point where the dog must heel. And stay. And wait as the Master does his inscrutable work.


                                                                                                  Shine. Let it shine. Keep it on…….

Turns out my daughter was raised up from her sickbed. Dad we later laid to rest — until the resurrection. One cured, the other healed. But the same Shepherd over both…

So how do the Dogs bring this gem of an album home? The finale is a dramatic, Abbey Road-like medley expanding the “light of the world” motif.

“Light into the Darkness,” which Kennedy and Masters built around a Sloas bass line, reminds us that having engaged his seemingly chaotic creation the Artist will not abandon it. This, incidentally, is at the very heart of God’s righteousness. “He can work with this,” we are assured.

Our response, our vocation is to shine (“Shine Dog”), not hiding this light under our bowls. But lest we get carried away in our endeavors, we’re drawn back to a be still moment: “3:16,” from John’s gospel, the most recognized and quoted verse in the Bible, brought to remembrance.

Heel closes with a slide guitar instrumental of “Amazing Grace.”

Hmm. Nothing I can add to that besides, “listen to the record.” Maybe they’ll do another — maybe Fetch, or something like that (though, at this rate of output I’m not sure I’ll be around for it). Either way, Dogs of Peace have left us with a pair of brilliantly conceived and finely crafted artifacts that point restive hearts toward home.






Wren Friend

I’ve been enraptured by birds since I was a youngster. My favorites have always been corvids — crows and especially blue jays — because of their myriad vocalizations, playful (and crafty) antics, and obvious intelligence. But in the summer of ’69, when we lived between Drexel and Valdese, NC, there was a family of Carolina wrens dwelling in a detached, concrete block garage on our property. They would allow me to get tantalizingly close before fluttering away — impressive, given the fidgity nature of an 8 year old kid.

In May of this year I noticed a male blue jay stopping regularly at our chain-link fence in the back yard. Having read some recent articles about corvid theory of mind, I thought I would engage in an experiment (for the sake of personal amusement) to test his ability to read my motives. I would toss him a peanut, at different times, wearing different attire, to observe his reactions. After accepting the first couple of tosses, he suddenly turned the tables on me by appearing to refuse them. He would sit as I tossed one, then two, then three nuts his way — then fly away as if entirely disinterested. But on one occasion I went inside and, looking through the shutters, saw him return to collect all three of the nuts.

It was all about him, clever rascal.

So I proved something about his intelligence, I guess; but blue jays are also extremely social, community-oriented creatures. By the last week of May he was getting called away to regular “mob duty” a couple of blocks away — presumably to help chase away a hawk or owl — and his visits to our fence became infrequent. About that same time I noticed a pair of Carolina wrens in our back yard. Now, this species has been nesting on our property for nearly all of the past 16 years we’ve lived here, usually in our detached garage. But while I would wait for the jay this pair would zoom right past me, close enough that I could almost reach out to intercept one, as they rounded the corner for the driveway side of the house.

wren 2

My rambunctious buddy, a split second after taking half a peanut from my hand.

This species of wren is the state bird of South Carolina, but they’re thick here in the North Carolina, at my parents’ in Tennessee, and elsewhere in the eastern U.S. (maybe they’re trying to get away from Lindsey Graham). They don’t migrate and tend to stay close to one particular place. This pair may be descendants of some of the first wrens we saw on our property years ago.

It took a few sour-smelling loads of laundry to make the connection: these guys had built their globular nest inside the outlet for our dryer vent. Fortunately (for them), by the time we realized this the chicks were ready to leave the nest.

Now, on one occasion in late May I half-seriously tossed half a peanut to the male wren as he sat on a pole in my wife’s salsa garden. To my surprise he swooped down to collect it, took it over to our patio and banged it into little pieces. I didn’t know that Carolina wrens would eat peanuts.

I didn’t record the exact day this happened; but by June 5 I had noted that, “the male wren is coming to me on the patio morning and evening, ‘begging’ for a peanut.” I also noted that he was approaching so closely as I sat eating and chatting with my wife that, “I might be able to get him to take from my hand.” Sure enough, on June 9, with the video recorder in my phone running, the little joker flew up to the armrest on my Adirondack and snatched a peanut from my outstretched fingers.

The first few times he took a nut from my hand he did so with wary quickness. But within a couple of days his comfort level rose extraordinarily. After receiving a nut he would  sit calmly by my hand for several seconds before dropping to the patio by my feet, where he would proceed to break it into tiny pieces to feed the five chicks now out of the nest and learning to forage.

When I come home from work the standard ritual is for our dog, an eleven year-old mutt named Aggie, to bark and wag and literally push open the glass door in the front for me to enter. On June 16 as I came up the walkway I saw the wren, sitting on the back of the Adirondack by the front door, waiting for me. The chicks were in the maple tree in our front yard and he was looking for an energy snack to give them. Our 30 pound dog, preempted by this 0.7 ounce interloper, sulked the rest of the evening.

I started to feel a bit manipulative in requiring this little guy to take from my hand. So I’ve reverted to tossing or “handing” him a nut when he approaches.

I’ve watched the chicks that were born in my dryer vent grow over the past couple of weeks. They and their mama are skittish toward me, but at lunch today (6/25/14) I succeeded in getting one to emerge from under our gas grill (wrens love to check under these for earwigs and spiders) to accept a small piece of nut I’d tossed there.

As the chicks prepare to cut the apron strings I know this could likely alter my interactions with the dad. He and his more reserved mate may start a new clutch — and not necessarily in our yard. His territory, which he claims with a bright and ear-splitting putta-wee putta-wee putta-wee chuck! consists of a two-by-seven lot block (other wrens claim adjacent blocks). In the past week I’ve noticed ‘our’ family spending more time at the other end of the block. He comes to see me around 6:00 a.m. for what is probably his own energy breakfast, but the evening visits have tapered off.

I’m hoping, perhaps against hope, to maintain contact with him (or that he’ll come back if he leaves) in the fall and winter, when my peanut snacks will be especially helpful. He has been a delight to my family, and we’ve talked about at his example of faithfulness and selflessness to his family.

He’s not a pet, but over the past month I’ve grown attached to him (I replaced the dryer vent, so I don’t hold that against him). At a minimum I’m going to enjoy whatever interactions time allows. As a Christian these little visits make me look forward to the Day of Christ and the age to come, when the restoration of harmony between mankind and beast is realized; when the sons of God are revealed to all creatures, great and small (Romans 8:18-21).

In A Beautiful (and Scary) Place With Boards of Canada

Scottish brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin have made music that fits their public image: mysterious, introverted, forlorn and nostalgic (NPR)

In the ‘60s when I was a youngster my family lived out in the country, in a development called the Plott Farm, halfway between Canton, NC and the Bethel Community. It’s near Cold Mountain, namesake of Charles Frazier’s celebrated novel. I played with army figures in the ditch in front of our house, watching archeology students from UNC Chapel Hill walk by in their cut-offs and sandals, en route to a dig at a Native American mound at the end of our road.

bocIn those days my dad was a disc jockey at the local radio station, WPTL. I listened to him spin wax while playing outside, the crackling music coming through a single earpiece from a transistor radio.

The days before I reached double digits were both exuberantly carefree and numblingly anxiety-ridden. The summertide bliss of “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers was jarred to a halt by the words, THIS IS A TEST OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM, and the blaring signal that followed. Every hair on my body stood on end. This beautiful place could be drastically altered in a moment.

Fast-forward to 1995. For personal interest I enrolled in a couple of evening courses at UNC Charlotte taught by James Tabor, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert and scholar of the biblical apocalyptic idiom. Tabor took time from lecturing to elaborate on his experience as a negotiator with David Koresh during the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in April, 1993.

Five years later the dot com bubble burst…then 9/11, then domestic spying, then the real estate meltdown…wars and rumors of wars…and more spying…

Being the son of a deejay brought me to love all kinds of music, ranging from old-time and bluegrass to prog rock, bebop, and classical (especially the totalitarian paranoia seeping through Shostakovich). But I’ve never been much of a “beats” guy. I did get into “Crossover” by EPMD, and the spell-binding “6 Underground” by Sneaker Pimps remains a guilty pleasure; but scratches and cross-fading were never my thing. I didn’t go looking for what came to be called “intelligent dance music” (IDM).

So it was by pure accident that I stumbled upon a YouTube video of Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger’s 102,800 foot jump from the edge of space (1960), set to the song “Dayvan Cowboy” by Boards of Canada. A little while later I found a fan video for “Everything You Do is a Balloon,” paired with a scared and grainy bicycle safety classroom film from them ‘60s. I didn’t know exactly what I was hearing, but it had a distinct texture and feel that was both whimsical and ominous.

I was hooked.  The more I looked the more I discovered remarkably creative fan videos, grabbing old documentaries from the ‘50s and ‘60s (public service announcements, nuclear test footage), or avant-garde art, synced up with the beats and soundscapes. I had unearthed a mysterious community with its own rhetoric and rituals.


The Boards (Bards?): Mike and Marcus, under a hexagon sun

Their knit hats aside, Boards of Canada  — Scottish brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, whose band handle was inspired by documentaries from the Film Board of Canada they watched as school kids — aren’t DJ’s in the standard scratch and spin mode (though there’s a bit of that in places). From their Hexagon Sun studio in rural Scotland come whistles, flutes, guitars, organs, drums, and analog synths, blended and mashed through old reel-to-reel decks, with hailstorms of static and hiss and (deliberate) warps and wobbles in tape speed.

With a recurring theme of childhood innocence interrupted by adult-size contingencies, augmented by eerie loops and samples – particularly of children’s voices – BOC’s music creates a time-elastic soundtrack for a kid raised in the unrealized Age of Aquarius.

In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country (2000) is a four-track EP inspired by the Branch Davidian tragedy. The title track features a doleful organ, jazzy synth, children laughing, and the distorted voice of Davidian member Amo Bishop Roden repeating, “Come out, and live with a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country.” Marcus Eoin told URB Magazine,

The Davidians thing was about the shock of seeing the way the U.S. authorities handled it all.

The pathos intensifies on the 2002 follow-up LP, Geogaddi. The track “Sunshine Recorder” includes a disembodied child’s solemn voice repeating, “…a beautiful place…” like an answer to Roden from heaven.  A sunshine recorder is a glass sphere that measures sunlight by focusing the light and burning a pattern across an inserted card. The dark irony of the government’s assault on the Davidians’ Mount Carmel Center (named for the place where the prophet Elijah called down fire on his sopping-wet sacrifice) is that the facility went up in flames with 20 children inside. In the classroom back in ’96, professor Tabor maintained that the government was ultimately responsible for the inferno — a view held by many today. “Sunshine Recorder” ends with children’s voices saying, “Bye…”


Last year (2013), the Boards released Tomorrow’s Harvest, a stylistic detour punctuated by arpeggio synths and string arrangements reminiscent of ‘80s horror and sci-fi films. “White Cyclosa” features the rumbling rotors of search helicopters; “Telepath” has an electronically-altered counting voice that appears to be under hypnotic suggestion or mind control (“Gyroscope” from Geogaddi also features a counting voice, transmitted from a short-wave “numbers station”).  “Palace Posy,” with its jerking time signature, is an anagram for “apocalypse.”

“Split Your Infinities” (grammar geeks, take note) includes this highly-distorted monologue:

The FEMA plans to imprison American citizens have generated a lot of interest around the country, in locating the potential prison camps throughout the country. These may be facilities currently being used as prisons such as those you saw earlier, or prisons that are being built supposedly in the name of the war on drugs. Or, facilities that have other uses but could quickly be used to detain large numbers of people…

“Semena Mertvykh” (seeds for the dead) is the parting coda, rumbling like a distant, approaching storm. BOC denies the album is “apocalyptic” per se, but rather looks ahead to a world after a major correction — or collapse; a time when society is reduced to “many small camps.” It’s music about childhood lost and unsustainable progress in the hands of mortally flawed adults animated by unseen spirits.

That’s not to ignore the more carefree and buoyant moments in the BOC catalog; they exist on every recording. They furthermore suggest that innocence, goodness, and beauty will outlive the downfall of edifices. Even Tomorrow’s Harvest features “Nothing is Real,” the most popular track on the album as voted by visitors to the BOCPages wiki site.

When I was a kid I listened to numbers stations on my dad’s short-wave. In grade school I watched scratched up Coronet films with snap, crackle, and pop soundtracks. That world was magical, mysterious, and sometimes scary.

This music would have fit as well then as now – as it no doubt will in a future out of our hands.

Who is Old Hop?

I’m an eleventh generation descendant of Old Hop of the town of Chota, a prominent Cherokeecunneshote settlement which now lies under Tellico Lake near present-day Vonore, TN.

The gentleman rendered in the painting here is not Old Hop but his nephew, Cunneshote.  It gives us a good idea of what an 18th century Cherokee headman looked like.

Old Hop was the uku, the keeper of the sacred fire in Chota.  As such he occupied a position of beloved man.  As the primary elder in his community it was his task to pass on tradition and give counsel.  Born sometime in the late 1600’s, Old Hop occupied this role from 1753 until about 1760, when he died.  During his tenure the British held him in awkward esteem as “king” of the Cherokees — there was no such title among the latter.

Like all native American societies the Cherokee followed traditional folkways and polity.   But tradition placed a premium on personal liberty.  A man was expected to do and behave in a number of traditional ways; but he could not be coerced into acting against his own judgment.

For example, in order to exact blood vengeance for the death of a loved one, a Cherokee town might form a war party — always temporary and limited in scope.  The young men of the town were expected to join.  But even up to the moment of attack an individual could decide that he wanted no part in the trouble, and could walk away without any formal repercussion.  Moreover, a man could disagree with a town council’s decision and go his own way.  Such individual secession was infrequent, but the right was honored.

Old Hop could only lead by example and influence.  He was a deft negotiator between French and British colonial interests.  Anthropologist Fred Gearing observed,

When Cherokees had differences among themselves, Old Hop had a great capacity to bring them together. Typically, he avoided making decisions himself… He was extremely cool-headed and patient with the more precipitate of the Cherokees around him. In short, Old Hop was the near-perfect embodiment of the Cherokee ideas about proper leadership behavior, that is, unusually circumspect.

There are a number of lessons here.  Cherokee culture prized individual liberty.  War parties had specific just-cause purposes and were self-limited.  We detect, too, that there was an innate understanding that tradition protected liberty in a way that later innovations could not.  After Old Hop died the Cherokees found themselves increasingly drawn into trading rivalries and imperial intrigue, and eventually found themselves dispossessed by the new continental empire called the United States.

Given European technological prowess the outcome was fairly inevitable.  But if Old Hop embodies nothing else, it is the principle that freedom is more precious than innovation and expediency.