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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Balfa Brothers

The Balfa Brothers

Play Traditional Cajun Music

I’m not a flag-waver and never have been, but I don’t mind saying this: The United States are home to some of the greatest music traditions in the world.  I came to particularly appreciate this while traveling in France.  They’ve got trad music in Brittany, a bit of Basque music down in the Basque country, and some authentically Parisian styles, but most of the rest is just ‘European’ — a couple thousand years of influence blended together into no particular regional style.  Here in the States, we have two great things going for folk music: immigrant populations from around the world, and a huge country with a high degree of geographic isolation.  It’s a perfect recipe for diverse and distinct musical styles to emerge.  So we get Cape Breton stuff in New England, Scots-Irish influenced old-time in Appalachia, African spirituals in the Southeast, Cajun music in Louisiana, Native American styles throughout the plains, Tex-Mex conjunto in the Southwest, Hawaiian guitar on the islands, to say nothing of jazz, the blues, rock and roll, swing, and on and on.  If you can’t find traditional American-born music that you like, then you truly haven’t tried very hard.

Which means that exploring American folk music can easily be a lifetime pursuit, and is for a lot of people.  It’s as deep a rabbit hole as you care to make it.  You can casually pick up a Smithsonian Folkways compilation and skim the surface of a lot of things, or you can spend the rest of your life in East Kentucky learning everything there is to know about a handful of particular musicians.

As for Cajun music, I’ve only barely started dipping into it.  I’ve long been aware of it, always liked the bits of which I was aware, but never really put my toes very far into the water.  That started to change for me in France, of all places.  On a night out in Paris, I ended up at a punk club dancing to the sounds of Sarah Savoy and the New Francadians.  They do their share of traditional Cajun, but also cross into the classic country music that I’ve been performing the last few years.  But instead of Hank Williams, it was Hank Williams translated into Cajun French.  The Parisian punks loved it, and I did, too.

So I did some homework.  I already had some of the real 1920s and 1930s vintage Cajun from the early days of recording: bands like the Hackberry Ramblers, scratchy old recordings with no bass tones and indistinct vocals.  So I decided to fast-forward to the folk revival, and picked up The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music.  While the title may lack creativity, the music more than makes up for it.  It is, without question, dance music.  The rhythms are smooth and slippery, the vocals pained and unrestrained, the accordion rich and booming.  It has quickly become one of my favorite albums, both to listen and dance to.

I don’t know how far down the Cajun rabbit hole I’ll venture.  As with old-time music, it’s bottomless. But if you’re looking to dip in, this album is about the best place to start that I can imagine.

Days of War, Nights of Love

Days of War, Nights of Love: CrimethInc. for Beginners


My review of Evasion was less than glowing.  It just seemed like the work of a pissed-off kid with lousy social skills.  So I didn’t expect anything too amazing from Days of War, Nights of Love, also from the CrimethInc. syndicate.

And so I was very pleasantly surprised.  Days of War is intelligent, thoughtful, playful, provocative, and dangerous.  It doesn’t preach, it doesn’t condescend, it just points the way to another world, one where corporations don’t serve the role of being moral law-givers, and where individuals don’t compartmentalize themselves away from the feelings and social structures that allow us to be human.

There’s a lot going on in Days of War, but the basic premise is this: What would you most like to be doing in all the world?  Think on it, fix it in your mind.  Now, ask: why aren’t you doing that thing right now?  Is it because of your job?  The expectations of your family?  Your religion?  Your sense of social propriety?  Your credit card debt?  Your fear that if you finally, finally gave yourself the chance to be what you want, that you’ll fail at it, and there will be nobody there to catch you?  And so rather than risk disappointment or failure, we decide instead not to try.  If we don’t try, we can’t fail.  Instead we try to live risk-free lives, which equate to excitement-free lives.  We get bored, we get fat.  We buy things to mitigate the boredom, we buy doctors and health clubs to ward off the fat.  And we forget how to ask:

What is my true desire?

Will your bank visit you in the hospital when you’re old?  Will your boss help you plant your garden?  Will your credit card company stay in bed and make love to you late on Sunday morning?

If not, then why are we giving our time, our very lives, away to those entities?  Why do we accept in return petty scraps of paid holidays, two weeks vacation a year, social networking web sites that we can use on our lunchbreak to keep track of our hundreds of virtual “friends” who are also on their lunchbreaks?

Days of War is radical not so much in its politics as in its aesthetics.  It resonates with a youthful manifesto that I wrote for myself when I was twenty years old, in which I made a vow that my living would be my art.  My own art is not yet perfect, but a performance piece in progress, a continual unlearning, and that’s okay, necessary even.  Like everyone else, I need people to remind me not to forget to ask:

What is your true desire?

Round Ireland With A Fridge

Round Ireland With A Fridge

Tony Hawks

It seems to me that there are two ways to create passable travel writing.  The first is to do an ordinary thing, and write an extraordinary story about it.  The second is to do an extraordinary thing, and then do ordinary writing about it.  Of course, the ideal is to do an extraordinary thing and write an extraordinary story about it, but I think few writers manage to achieve that.  Nonetheless, the other two approaches create perfectly readable travel writing that can’t help but appeal to all of the people who just do ordinary things and don’t write about them at all.

Round Ireland With a Fridge falls into the category of ordinary writing about an extraordinary journey.  The premise is as simple as it is absurd: Tony Hawks accepts a bet that he can hitchhike the circumference of Ireland in a month’s time with a mini fridge.  It’s no spoiler to say that the trip goes swimmingly.  It’s exactly the sort of ridiculous journey that people can rally behind, and the Irish people are good about rallying behind the ridiculous, anyway.  Hawks’ trip is, as one would expect, a marvelous sequence of shenanigans and a testament to the kindness of strangers with a sense of adventure.

But this wasn’t what excited me most about the book.  What excited me most about the book was that fact that it wasn’t particularly well-written, but sold half a million copies.  As many of you know, I’ve been working on my own book during the last few months.  Some of it is well-written; most of it isn’t yet.  But reading Round Ireland was confidence-boosting.  I’m used to reading writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, Dante and Umberto Eco.  And reading such master wordsmiths always leaves me feeling pretty inadequate as a storyteller.  But Round Ireland is different.  The story is great, but the writing is only fine.  Not brilliant, but fine.  There were plenty of parts where I thought that I would have told it differently, or would have phrased something better.  And rather than that being annoying, it was exciting for me.  Half a million copies.  I could do this.  It wasn’t magic, just dedication, discipline, and a good agent.

I’ve got two of the three.  I still need to learn how to find the third, but that only after I’ve done a lot more work.  For those of you keeping score at home, the current count is 33,290 words.  It might be halfway done.  Then half of it will end up on the editing floor to get replaced with something better.  I have come to this profound conclusion: writing a book is hard.  No wonder not everybody does it.  In the process, I was also given this equally profound piece of advice: the difference between writers and non-writers is that writers write.  Period.

So I’m trying to take that to heart, and keep at it.  The problem is always that it’s also true that musicians make music, period, and these days I’m much more that than I am a writer, so it always wins over other things.  The good news is that I think the only difference for me between being a writer and a musician is where I invest my time.  Either way, it’s time vastly well-spent.