May 24, 2010

I'm So Bored With The USA

31st March - 13th April
Buffalo NY/Toronto ON

Not really. And I don't think The Clash were either. Their American influences became ever more apparent on their sleeveless shirts. Americans revere them much more than we Brits do now. But I am tired and want to go home. I crave some Warburtons bread and a pint of bitter. And decent cheese as standard. That said, I don't want to leave Buffalo. My friends are here. It helps that those friends get me free drinks and entrance into shows too but even if they didn't, I'd wish I could stay here. Damn immigration laws and damn private health care.

It's been a long trip. I ought to thank all the people who let us stay with them or showed us around or hung out or just cared. I know that might be boring to read so feel free to skip ahead. It won't bother me. I'm more worried about missing someone off the list. But thems the risks... so thank you... Michael, Tara, Geoff, Daryl, Alexis, Erik, Donny, Chantal, Mark, Tim, Sharon, Zeno, Lorelei, Mike, Meri, Mike, Missy, Kevin, Jeff, Donna, Michael, Louise, Jon, Kelli and Ward.

The one state I'd urge you all to see is Montana. Bozeman could be a place to live. And I liked a lot about California way more than I thought I would. New Orleans I owe a second visit too. Being ill there was shameful. Atlanta too. Though God knows I'll never forget the Clermont Lounge. Or Jumbos Clown Room in L.A. On the other side of the fence, I can't imagine me ever setting foot in Oklahoma again. I wish we'd had the time to visit the northern states, the Dakotas especially. And I really wanted to see some more of Kentucky if only so I could write about their state song My Old Kentucky Home which used to open with the the following lines...

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
'Tis summer, the darkies are gay

Darkies? Seriously? Fucking Hell!
And it doesn't stop there. Verse two has the line...

The time has come when the darkies have to part

And verse three, not wanting to be left out, has these charming couplets...

The head must bow and the back will have to bend,
Wherever the darky may go;
A few more days, and the trouble all will end,
In the field where the sugar-canes grow;

Now it was written back in 1852 and no doubt such a word wouldn't have caused offence back then. Truth be told the whole lyric is, if anything, pretty sympathetic to the darkies' plight. (Though not in any way advocating emancipation or any such foolish notion.) But what really amazes me about the song is this - it stood proudly extant as the official song of the state of Kentucky until... 1986. Then the Kentucky General Assembly changed the word darkie to the word people. Phew.

But I know I have to go back and hear those good folk of Kentucky sing that song. Maybe at the University of Kentucky football games.

I ain't done with these songs and this country yet.

May 19, 2010

The Night Of The Johnstown Flood

Monday 29th & Tuesday 30th March - Days 49 & 50

We so wanted to go and see the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum in B'more but it was closed on Mondays (grrrrr). It sounds great though. A waxworks dedicated to African American history that's slap bang in the middle of the hood. We said hi as we drove past anyway. We read some reports on Trip Advisor and a lot of them talked about how bad the neighbourhood was. We figured that was nonsense. We were wrong. So we left town and headed north for Johnstown, PA.

Nearly full circle. Just 120 miles from our first stop in Youngstown, OH. And another Bruce Springsteen song. Sort of.

Highway Patrolman is a typical Springsteen acoustic folksong from the album Nebraska. It has lots of geographical references in it: Ohio, Michigan, someplace called Perrineville and even Canada. But the one that intrigued me most comes in the chorus.

Me and Franky laughin' and drinkin'
Nothin' feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria as the band played
"Night of the Johnstown Flood"

I wanted to hear this song Night of The Johnstown Flood. I'd never even heard of it before. Not surprising really, because there wasn't a song called Night of The Johnstown Flood back then. I guess Springsteen figured there should have been or maybe there was a song about the flood with a different name. However, there is now a song called Night of The Johnstown Flood. It came out this year and it's by a band called The Rock Creek Jug Band. I'm surprised it took so long.

So with no song to investigate I had to check out the story of the flood itself. Holy hell what a disaster. On May 31, 1889 after days of heavy rain, a dam burst 14 miles upstream from Johnstown. It took 57 minutes for the 20 million tons of water in Lake Conemaugh to reach Johnstown, a steel town of about 30,000 people. 10 minutes later over 2000 people were dead. And the town was completely ransacked. The photos of the devastation are truly incredible.

What made the tragedy even more upsetting was the cause. The dam had been built to store water for a canal system. But when the railways killed the canals, the dam and the lake it created became the home of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. A very private and exclusive club for the wealthy families of Pittsburgh. Guess what? They didn't really spend the required money and effort to keep the dam secure. After the flood, the victims tried but failed to recover damages from the dam's owners. The only silver lining was that public indignation at that failure helped change American law from "a fault-based regime to strict liability".

The town did recover. In fact, the efforts to re-build it drew donations from around the world and the whole operation was instrumental in the development of the American Red Cross. But I'm almost ashamed to say that the only thing that seemed worthy of a visit to the town was the Museum dedicated to the flood. Thankfully, the museum is good enough to justify the visit. The pictures and articles from before and after the flood are really fascinating. And they show a good 15 minute film which tells the story well. The newpaper coverage, the silent movies that were made about it and the numbers of sightseers who came to see the town afterwards suggest that at one point in history this flood was as famous as any other disaster. And amazing little details like this made me wonder why I'd never even heard of it:

"Train driver John Hess, sitting in his locomotive engine, heard the rumbling of the flood and, correctly assuming what it was, tried to warn people by tying down the train whistle and racing toward the town by riding backwards to warn the residents ahead of the wave. His warning saved many people who were able to get to high ground. But at least 50 people died, including about 25 passengers stranded on trains in the town. Hess himself miraculously survived despite the flood picking up his locomotive and tossing it aside."

It seems impossible to figure out what history and popular consciousness will forget and what it will remember. But for a while Johnstown had the world looking at it. And now... well... it's not on the radar. The little town looks like it's been hit by another disaster... an economic one. Which is bad, but just too common for people to care about. There must be thousands of dying towns in America. Probably always has been. There have been enough songs written about them. Johnstown is in a very remote part of Pennsylvania. Like Virginia, it's way more... way more... if not red-neck then maybe backwoods. It's not really going to draw many day trippers. Long gone are the days when the likes of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club sought their kicks in these parts. And I can't really blame them.

I had thought I'd spend the last night on the road in a town that didn't have a song about it but ought to have had one. So much so that Springsteen imagined one for it. It seemed paradoxical but this non-existent song made the case for my theory better than any real town or real song. But the thought of staying in town was too depressing. The green lushness of Virginia seemed very far away. We were surrounded by bleak, black, bare pine trees and covered by an ashen grey sky. Our friends in Springville, near Buffalo were just four hours away. But the night was going to fall before we could make it back there and the deer carcasses on these dark, twisty roads made us less than eager to try making it there. When it gets dark in America, it really gets dark... roadside lights ain't as common as they are in the UK. So we tried to get as far as we could before night fall. We passed through Punxsutawney, the town of Groundhog Day. We drove around a few hotels and motels but couldn't bring ourselves to stay in one. There was something about this part of the world which was not working for me. In the end we pulled into a chain motel in Du Bois (pronounced, surprisingly, Dew Boys, not Dubois as in Blanche) because, in the words of Uncle Monty, the sky did bruise. And disaster... it was a dry county. I noticed the gas station didn't have a wall of refrigerators packed with beer like every other one we'd been in and I thought that was strange. But when Walmart had no booze I knew we were in trouble. Luckily there was one bar in town. But finding the door into it was something they didn't want to come easy. It was around the back, tucked away under an iron staircase. It looked like a classic cottaging spot to me, but it had been a long day and I needed a beer. Happily I didn't get buggered. But I felt shagged. This town seemed a piss poor place to spend the last night. Getting pissed seemed to be the only way to deal with it.

When we woke up on Tuesday I couldn't wait to get out of the motel, the town or the state. Things seemed to improve pretty much as soon as we crossed back into New York. Within two hours we were driving through Ellicotville, a prettier little ski town than anyone would imagine could be found within 60 minutes of Buffalo. When we'd seen it last back in January it had been, if not quite arctic, then at least alpine-esque. The slopes were now clinging to some paultry grey patches of snow. The hills were shedding the stuff like a cygnet sheds its grey plumage. The sun was out. We stopped and bought sponge candy and micro brew beers and headed back to the arms and bosom of our friends in Springville.

May 10, 2010


Monday 29th March - Day 49

I sold the farm to take my woman where she longed to be
We left our kin and all our friends back there in Tennessee
I bought those oneway tickets she had often begged me for
And they took us to the streets of Baltimore
Her heart was filled with laughter when she saw those city lights
She said the prettiest place on earth is Baltimore at night

Hard times in the city
In a hard town by the sea
Ain't nowhere to run to
There ain't nothin' here for free
Hooker on the corner
Waitin' for a train
Drunk lyin' on the sidewalk
Sleepin' in the rain
And they hide their faces
And they hide their eyes
'Cause the city's dyin'
And they don't know why
Oh, Baltimore
Man, it's hard just to live
Oh, Baltimore
Man, it's hard just to live

Clearly a lot happened between 1966, when Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard wrote The Streets Of Baltimore, and 1977 when Randy Newman wrote his song Baltimore. In just 11 years Baltimore went from being the "prettiest place on earth" (at least in the eyes of a bar loving runaround) to a dying city. Fast forward to 2002 and the premiere of the TV series The Wire which, for the next 6 years, depicted Baltimore as a city FUBAR. Fans of the series (though apostles would be a better word than fans) think it the greatest TV show ever made. And I do consider myself to be a fan. If you haven't seen it I highly recommend you spend £60 and buy the box set. If you doubt me then click here and let Charlie Brooker convince you.

The Wire is set in the hood or the hoods of Baltimore and they look like desperate places. Empty ramshackle rows of townhouses which have clearly been abandoned by the city authorities. They look like this.

And this.

And if you get the chance to go round the back of the houses they look like this.

Total urban decay. And, sad to say, an area where nearly all the population is African American. That's no surprise is it? But how could it be? How could things be so bad for one race in a society? Especially in a society that believes all men are created equal. Because as I see it for ghetto children there is no equality in terms of opportunity and provision. Now The Wire is mostly filmed in streets just like those pictured above. If you watch it you get used to seeing locations just like those. I certainly got the impression that they did most of their filming in a very small localized area. I figured they went to the worst part of the city and filmed it there. I was wrong. They went to lots of different places and here's why... these kind of areas make up a massive chunk of the central area of the city. When we drove around it we couldn't believe how block after block was the same. Right off major roads, sometimes right on major roads. This landscape is the norm for many, many people. I don't know what proportion of the 637,000 citizens of Baltimore live in neighborhoods like this, but judging by the sheer number of bad blocks then it's a lot. Wikipedia tells me 22.9% of the population live below the poverty line. That's 150,000 people living below the poverty line in a city that's less than 40 miles from the White House. That's not right. Driving around it made me feel everything from shame to anger and on to gratitude and then right back to shame.

Then as we were driving down North Gay Street, in the midst of all this decay, we came across one of the most magnificent buildings we'd seen on our trip.

This is the American Brewery (wouldn't you know) built in 1887 by John Frederick Wiessner, a German immigrant (wouldn't you know). It looked magnificent though it had been empty and derelict for years until Humanin, a non-profit organisation, took it over in 2005 and saved it. They then set about using the building to start a regeneration project that they hope will save East Baltimore. I admire their ambition.

Baltimore depressed the hell out of us. It didn't scare us like East St Louis. There were too many folks on the street for that. Lots of folk ignoring the rain, but I guess street life is the only life they know (ahem.) The Wire taught us about the corner boys, the foot soldiers of the drug gangs who deal from street corners. They were there. Only they looked a lot older than the guys in the TV show. There were operating businesses too. A swanky looking rim shop just like in The Wire, but more typically it was corner stores and liquor stores. They looked like they were outposts in a war. It was a mess. Impossible to think how it could be restored. It took over $20 million just to restore that brewery.

Only a few days earlier Congress had passed Obama's health care bill and the day after that we'd tuned into Rush Limbaugh, the notorious right wing talk radio host, and he opened his show with the words, "America is hanging by a thread". He may well be right, but not because of the health care bill. I find it hard to imagine how a country with ghettos like these streets of Baltimore can possibly be looking ahead to better days. This country needs fixing but I don't think it'll get fixed. The will isn't there. Not yet at least. Americans who listen to Rush and Hannity and Glen Beck still think America is just great. They're in denial. They don't want to see the problems. Of course all those people who voted for Obama were voting for change so maybe I shouldn't be too pessimistic. But I fear that it won't last. In the end America can forget about change because they can just sweep their poor under the carpet and let places like Baltimore and East St Louis decay, hoping they won't fester and bring forth some kind of revolution. And sad to say I get a stronger sense of revolutionary fervor from the right wing of America. The scary future might be a lurch towards the right under the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. God help us all if that happens.

May 6, 2010

Oh Shenandoah

Sunday 28th March - Day 48

If you thought yesterday was a dull day to read, well this one isn't even going to reach those low thrills. So be warned.

Following on from the joys of the Blue Ridge Parkway we planned to drive along the Skyline Drive today. But the weather had other ideas. The road has risen before us a lot on this trip (and not in the good way that Johnny Rotten was singing about on Rise.) And, unlike in Britain, when the road starts to climb here it keeps on climbing. For miles. Sometimes it's an ear popping fast ascent and other times, like today, it's a looong slooow steady engine droning cruise which takes you into the clouds. Literally. When we reached the entrance to Skyline Drive we were in fog. And fog, Carol tells me, is a cloud that has touched down. We couldn't see more than 50 yards. The toll booth/entrance to the Skyline slipped slowly into vision from the mist, looking like something from a John Le Carre cold war novel. The Skyline Drive pretty much carries on where the Blue Ridge Parkway leaves off. It was created in the same era, it's very high up (clue in the name) and it runs along the Blue Ridge. But it differs in three ways ways: 1) it's shorter, just 105 miles long 2) it's in the Shenandoah National Park and 3) they charge you $15 to drive it! That's another thing that's starting to make me value Britain a little bit more. We don't have to pay to go into our National Parks. True the car parks within the parks ain't cheap but it seems pretty standard to have to pay to drive through a National Park in America. We have yet to pay for that privilege. We would have down in Yellowstone, but as all bar one of the roads road is closed in winter we didn't even have the option of paying. Because yesterday's drive was so beautiful we would probably have paid up today, but there's not much point driving the Skyline when you can't see the sky. Or the edge of the road. Or the 3000 foot drop that's just over the edge of the road. So we turned around and headed for Baltimore.

The song that brought us to this part of the country in the first place is probably the oldest song on our list. Oh Shenandoah is a classic expression of love for either a girl or a place. I've always read it as being about the place but some think it's about an Indian chief's daughter. Either way, as it's folk music there are different versions so you can suit yourself. My money is on the original being about the land because it was a sailor's song, and given that there's going to be another girl in the next port I think that what the sailor is yearning for is home.

To my ears it sounds like an Irish ballad. And seeing as how it's been in existence since at least 1882, it's not surprising that it doesn't sound 'American'. Britannia was still ruling the waves back then with the help of men from all over her empire. So I expect that the old world supplied the main cultural influence on the men who wrote songs about the new world. And according to the mighty Wikipedia a man called J.E. Laidlaw of San Francisco reported hearing a version sung by a black Barbadian on a ship from Glasgow in 1894. But it fascinates me that though the music still sounds British/Irish, the songwriter clearly sees himself as American and that land as being his land. The USA may have been less than 100 years old when Oh Shenandoah was first penned but already the white settlers were prone to a sentimental romanticisizing of the place that was every bit as heartfelt as any Irish ballad.

Is this a well known song in the UK? I'm not so sure. I'm from an Irish family and got bitten by the folk music bug when I was a youth though I doubt my non-folk loving contemporaries would know it. But any serious muso should know it. Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Bryn Terfel has sung it. Instrumentalists cover it too and they are equally diverse... from Bill Frisell to James Galway to Keith Jarrett. It's become a standard for classical crossover tenors and jazz soloists with an eye on some sales. And of course it's meat and drink to the folk, country and bluegrass gangs. Others who couldn't resist it include Robeson, Dylan, Van the Man, Judy Garland and Jimmy Rodgers. Ok so not everybody... Slipknot haven't done it (yet) but Thin Lizzy did so you get my point. Here's a couple of versions you might like...

So we drove through Shenandoah and it was wet and green and looked like Ireland. A bit. It also looked at times like it was home to the sort of men in the film Deliverance. You know, the ones who liked pigs. Looking at America from across the water we think the rednecks live far south, or out west. But they live all over. We were picking up Washington radio stations while driving past shacks that looked like they were auditioning for parts in teenage slasher flicks. Not too many Democratic Party members in those parts I suspect. And yes, appearances can be deceptive, but the local radio talk show made me pretty sure the appearances were accurate. The hot topic of debate was the Virginia Governor's willingness (seemingly nailed on) to sign a bill which will change things for members of the public who have a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Up to now those poor oppressed free citizens were not allowed to carry their guns into places that served alcohol. Unbelievable I know. You may have the right to carry the gun but not into a joint that served alcohol. Despite the cross my heart swear to die promises that they wouldn't get steaming drunk and start shooting... they still weren't allowed to take that concealed weapon into a bar. Or a restaurant. Or anywhere that sold booze. But Let Freedom Ring, the gun lobby had seemingly convinced the Governor that it was downright evil to stop good, God-fearing, gun-loving citizens from taking their heat into a bar. So now (or soon) you can sit next to your buddy at the bar as he glugs his Miller, or your wife in a restaurant as she sips a cheeky little chardonnay, and still get a boner because you can feel that cold steel strapped to you.

The words "fucking" and "insane" spring to my mind.

The shacks and radio show told me I had to get out of this place. So I put my foot down and headed for Baltimore, Maryland. Or as it's also known (because of the gang wars)... Bodymore, Murderland.

(For unbiased reporting of all gun law issues I cannot recommend But I can recommend it for scary mentalists who love guns waaaaaay too much. Fancy some Gun Talk Radio? You got it.)