blue grass

Monday morning, we left Pittsburgh early in order to get to Hyden, Kentucky, where Mary had set up a school presentation for BRIM at the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music. Mary had been there with ETHEL before, and has worked with Dean Osborne, who’s the director of this very cool school nestled in a hollow in the Appalachians.

I was fascinated to learn that there’s a rigidity and extreme traditionalism in the bluegrass world that rivals the classical music world. Doing anything different from the established norms is frowned upon, and yet all the greats of bluegrass were of course tremendous innovators who broke all the rules, from Bill Monroe to the Osborne Brothers themselves. So the school is devoted to finding that line of respect and devotion to the excellence of the tradition, while at the same time opening up to new ideas and approaches that will keep the art form alive.

It was a really meaningful experience to perform my music for these fellow travelers, I felt like we arrived from different places to a shared path, and I’m honored to have their company. They had lots of questions about how I put my music together technically, which was a bit of a surprise to me. When I do these kinds of presentations at conservatories, I don’t generally get asked detailed compositional questions. I found the whole experience refreshing and fascinating. I think there may be something really interesting to explore at the nexus of traditional bluegrass and new music…. Hmmmm….

Dean Osborne generously arranged to put us up at Mary Breckinridge’s house, Wendover, which was the site of the Frontier Nursing Service she founded in the late 20s, and which is still operating today. (I had only learned about this program a few weeks earlier, when I met Mary’s cousin Kristin, a cheese-maker, at the Craftsbury Farmer’s Market up in Vermont, who had participated in the program in the late 80s.) Mary Breckinridge was this amazing person. A privileged woman, she lost both her own children at an early age, so she decided to come to deeply impoverished Leslie County and start a nursing service for mothers and children. In the years that she ran this service, both maternal and infant health improved from perhaps the worst in the nation to better than the country as a whole, and all this work was done by a combination of professional nurses on horseback traveling up and around the hollows, and by young women volunteers, who came out to join the adventure. It’s a case of those much-maligned “ladies bountiful”  doing something really meaningful and transformative with their time and talent and energy. Dean estimates that something like a hundred thousand people today owe their existence to Mary Breckinridge and the Frontier Nursing Service.

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a day to Pittsburgh

Saturday, we headed out in the rain and cold towards Pittsburgh, stopping at Shanksville at the newly unveiled Flight 93 memorial, which is quite well-done: tasteful and thoughtful in that National Park-ish way. It might be strange to say this, but I found the absence of any information or images of the four hijackers to be a lost opportunity, somehow. I guess I really believe that seeing the bad guys, engaging with their craziness, is a way to guard against craziness in oneself or one’s culture. I mean, isn’t that at least part of why we read and watch movies about Hitler or mass murderers or whatever? I’m not sure how that could or should be done at this memorial, but in my opinion, erasing them completely from the picture is a sanitizing that minimizes the actual authentic heroism of the forty folks who brought down the plane in this lonely field.

We arrived at my friends’ Rick and Kate’s place in time for dinner, and I could help marveling at how different our pace was from that 20 to 40 miles per day I did going down the Mississippi in 2009. No wonder I got so interested in 19th century (and earlier) history, I was traveling at a pre-20th century pace! That’s super-obvious the moment I think of it, but I only realized it fully doing that quick drive on Saturday: nothing to it to drive from New York City to Pittsburgh, it’s only a few hundred miles!

It was great to catch up with Rick and Kate. Rick is a wonderful poet, you can check out his work here and here, and Kate is a passionate birder, and I was really gratified that she liked the movie of In and Out of the Game, that really means a lot to me.

Poe, Sir Thomas Browne, Suetonius, Tiberius

Despina, an inveterate mystery reader, mentioned that the epigraph to Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue is this line from Chapter 5 of Sir Thomas Browne’s HYDRIOTAPHIA, Urne-Buriall OR, A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk.

What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzling questions are not beyond all conjecture.

Sir Thomas appends a note that says “The puzling questions of Tiberius unto Grammarians. Marcel. Donatus in Suet.”

So I went to Suetonius and found the following entertaining bits about Tiberius and exile, along with the question about the sirens:

10 At the flood-tide of success, though in the prime of life and health, he suddenly decided to go into retirement and to withdraw as far as possible from the centre of the stage; perhaps from disgust at his wife, whom he dared neither accuse nor put away, though he could no longer endure her; or perhaps, avoiding the contempt born of familiarity, to keep up his prestige by absence, or even add to it, in case his country should ever need him…. At the time he asked for leave of absence on the ground of weariness of office and a desire to rest; and he would not give way either to his mother’s urgent entreaties or to the complaint which his step-father openly made in the senate, that he was being forsaken. On the contrary, when they made more strenuous efforts to detain him, he refused to take food for four days. Being at last allowed to depart, he left his wife and son in Rome and went down to Ostia in haste, without saying a single word to any of those who saw him off, and kissing only a very few when he left.

11 From Ostia he coasted along the shore of Campania, and learning of an indisposition of Augustus, he stopped for a while. But since gossip was rife that he was lingering on the chance of realising his highest hopes, although the wind was all but dead ahead, he sailed directly to Rhodes, for he had been attracted by the charm and healthfulness of that island ever since the time when he put in there on his return from Armenia. Content there with a modest house and a villa in the suburbs not much more spacious, he adopted a most unassuming manner of life, at times walking in the gymnasium without a lictor or a messenger, and exchanging courtesies with the good people of Greece with almost the air of an equal.

****

13 He also gave up his usual exercises with horses and arms, and laying aside the garb of his country, took to the cloak and slippers; and in this state he continued for upwards of two years, becoming daily an object of greater contempt and aversion. This went so far that the citizens of Nemausus threw down his statues and busts, and when mention was once made of him at a private dinner party, a man got up and assured Gaius that if he would say the word, he would at once take ship for Rhodes and bring back the head of “the exile,” as he was commonly called. It was this act especially, which made his position no longer one of mere fear but of actual peril, that drove Tiberius to sue for his recall with most urgent prayers, in which his mother joined; and he obtained it, although partly owing to a fortunate chance. Augustus had resolved to come to no decision of the question which was not agreeable to his elder son, who, as it happened, was at the time somewhat at odds with Marcus Lollius, and accordingly ready to lend an ear to his stepfather’s prayers. With his consent therefore Tiberius was recalled, but on the understanding that he should take no part or active interest in public affairs.

****

70 He was greatly devoted to liberal studies in both languages. In his Latin oratory he followed Messala Corvinus, to whom he had given attention in his youth, when Messala was an old man. But he so obscured his style by excessive mannerisms and pedantry, that he was thought to speak much better offhand than in a prepared address. He also composed a lyric poem, entitled “A Lament for the Death of Lucius Caesar,” and made Greek verses in imitation of Euphorion, Rhianus, and Parthenius, poets of whom he was very fond, placing their busts in the public libraries among those of the eminent writers of old; and on that account many learned men vied with one another in issuing commentaries on their works and dedicating them to the emperor. 3 Yet his special aim was a knowledge of mythology, which he carried to a silly and laughable extreme; for he used to test even the grammarians, a class of men in whom, as I have said, he was especially interested, by questions something like this: “Who was Hecuba’s mother?” “What was the name of Achilles among the maidens?” “What were the Sirens in the habit of singing?”

[I should mention that Sir Thomas Browne is one of my favorite guys, I wrote a piece many years ago based on The Garden of Cyrus, which oddly enough happens to be being performed tonight in NYC(!)]