Summer Solstice Newsletter: Limits of the Traditional
Hello there. I would like to tell you about an encounter in the wilderness. Between performances this June in Washington State, I hiked into the Olympic mountains with a new friend. There on the ridgeline, on the summer solstice, surrounded by myriad wildflowers, I saw a familiar woman coming from the other direction.
Something about her eyes and white hair drew me back to a place deep in my memory. I asked her and the woman she walked with, whether or not we were acquainted. She said that she had taught music at my elementary school, and that she was, in fact, Ms. Ramsey.
I told her what I had longed to tell her for years. That she was the first adult to ever encourage me to sing. That I remembered her coming up to me as I hung around the rickety bleachers of the public school at seven, singing melodies to myself. I remembered her looking at me seriously and telling me never to stop. On the mountain, I finally thanked her.
I am a singer now, I told her, and this is due in no small part to your encouragement. As the tears welled in our eyes, the two women asked me to sing them a song. I broke into a rendition of Edelweiss. After our harmonies ended and the two of them started back down the mountain, Ms. Ramsey’s partner turned around to say “You know, teachers don’t get to hear this kind of thing enough.”
I feel we are living in a time when earnest gratitude, when earnestness in general, is endangered. During my performances this month, I have looked out at audiences in granges, in a geodesic dome, in a logging bar, at a roadhouse, on a lawn, at a festival, and soon, this 4th of July, at a trailer park resort. I have seen in the eyes of the audiences, a longing for something I have been lucky to have had so much of. I feel rich in a musical and artistic tradition made out of the scraps of a country that dissuades its citizens from revelry. The culture I am part of seems to be thriving in a time and space where there is, allegedly, nothing traditional being created anymore.
What is traditional? Where does tradition end or begin? By keeping tradition locked in a far and distant past, are we are losing the ability to believe in and create “authentic culture” for and by ourselves? Perhaps this is specifically a problem in white populations, whose dominant cultural narrative is to forget, to move on, to have more, and to renew. The old capitalist vibration. To ever want. There is nothing more detrimental to the spirit perhaps, than forgetting we have a past. Because, by connecting to that past, to the people who have touched and changed us, even the dead ones, we can understand how the present is so very precious and real.
I devote myself to exposing the secret traditional of modern life, and I would like nothing more than to share it with you. Whether it is the tradition of girl scout sing-alongs, popcorn machines on a back porch in Chimacum, or angsty teens busking Green Day at the Northwest Folklife Festival - I see thee and I will hold you in song.
The main well of my inspiration this month comes from the recently released Bob Dylan “Documentary”, Rolling Thunder Revue, in which the troubadour takes his band of freaks on the road to perform at small halls in America. Couple in Canada too. Bob Dylan gives his songs to the public during the bicentennial year, without asking much in return. How I have felt that urgency of desperate giving during the last weeks of shows.
Allen Ginsberg closes Rolling Thunder with a benediction. These were the words he spoke, that I now hold as a compass rose, as I bring Western Female to new stages and venues this summer:
“You, who saw it all, or who saw flashes and fragments, take from us some example, try and get yourselves together, clean up your act, find your community, pick up on some kind of redemption of your own consciousness, become mindful of your own friends, your own work, your own proper meditation, your own art, your own beauty, go out and make it for your own eternity.”
Upcoming Western Female Performances:
June 27, Hotel Albatross, Ballard, WA 9pm
June 28, Cellar Door, Port Townsend, WA 9pm
July 4, Sou'Wester Lodge, Seaview, WA 7pm
July 10, Jalopy Theater Roots and Ruckus, Brooklyn, NY 9pm
August 8, Lost Horse Saloon, Marfa, TX
August 15, Nambé Mill House, Santa Fe, NM
August 16, GHOST, Santa Fe, NM
More dates TBA
Western Female Audio Artifacts:
Fair and Tender Ladies Video, Paris 2013
At age 22 I went to Paris with a banjo. It was there I came into contact with a couple of young women, with whom I made this video of the folk hit, Come All Ye Faire and Tender Ladies, in sensuous three part harmony. Thanks to Sarah Navarro for resurrecting this.
Western Female's 2019 Folklife Set is Streaming
Charlie Powers described our set as “The weirdest you could have possibly gotten at Folklife.” For a devotional experience of the Pacific Northwest, delivered in a style guitarist Davee Bolt describes as “Country Grunge”, please have a listen.
Rolling Thunder Revue - directed by Martin Scorsese
The line between fact and fiction is crossed, the poets clamor for ecstasy, and Scarlet Rivera is the world's biggest necklace.
Ol' Red Hair is Back - Bette Midler's 1977 HBO Television Special
Bette successfully sings Oklahoma from a clam shell in Polynesia, de-robes Dustin Hoffman as he plays classical piano, and invites the deepest and most raw compassion between herself and the underbelly of the world, portrayed by an aging Emmett Kelly.
Viva - directed by Anna Biller
Anna acts in, directs, writes, composes music for, and makes sets and costumes for this film, which is so perfectly 70s sexploitation, you won't believe it was made in 2007 by a woman, but that is the whole goddam subversive point.
Churchyard Entertainment from Book of Days - performance created by Meredith Monk
Anyone present at the Undamming of the Elwha River reënactment show complete with Popcorn Machine, last Sunday, will remember Peter Freeman teaching us the song from this incredible, strange, perfect, and pretty medieval piece of pure performance art gold.
Two Versions of "The Saddest Song", By The Riverside
1. Sur le Bord de l'Eau - Blind Uncle Gaspard
Once you hear, you cannot un-hear. This beautiful modal song has lingered in my heart and mind since listening to it all morning in Chimacum. Someone on the internet described it as the saddest song, and that feels true, even if you don't know what the Cajun french means.
2. La Fille aux Chansons - Malicorne
This song is some kind of cousin of the previous song, except it is the early 70s french psych version. YES! Ten minutes long!
Two Versions of "I see the Wolf, the Duck, and the Weasel"
1. J'ai vu le loup, le renard, le lièvre - Madame Gérard Rhèaume
Whilst nerding out with ethnomusicologist human Devon, I learned that this song has been sung in many French speaking circumstances - from Bretagne to Canada to Louisiana. Mostly, I am interested in the scene happening in this video, which seems to be a canned version of a cultural town gathering in French Canada. I love this lady's energy. A lot.
2. La Jument de Michao - Nolwenn Leroy
Woah! Same song, except performed by Breton superstar Nolwenn Leroy, at some kind of Renaissance pseudo-Roma Burning Man-esque camp situation sponsored by Free People brand. Lots of sword fighting in this one.
Native North America Vol. 1 - compilation by Light in The Attic Records
It was a great pleasure to view this compilation and listen to it in the home of John Bellows on San Juan Island. I had no idea so many Canadian aboriginals had formed bands in the 60s and 70s, and made such incredible, heart-wrenching, soul-driving songs about daily life. This compilation provides a great introduction to a movement of "the traditional" into the present tense.
Desire - album by Bob Dylan
The most enjoyable part of this album for me is how long the songs are. How complete. Each one paints a world, somewhere beyond this one, and yet so, so close.
Here are the album's liner notes, to enliven your summer:
Where do I begin...on the heels of Rimbaud moving like a dancing bullet thru the secret streets of a hot New Jersey night filled with venom and wonder. Meeting the Queen Angel in the reeds of Babylon and then to the fountain of sorrow to drift away in the hot mass of the deluge... To sing praise to the King of those dead streets, to grasp and let go in a heavenly way -- streaming into the lost belly of civilization at a standstill. Romance is taking over. Tolstoy was right. These notes are being written in a bathtub in Maine under ideal conditions, in every Curio Lounge from Brooklyn to Guam, from Lowell to Durango oh sister, when I fall into your spacy arms, can not ya feel the weight of oblivion and the songs of redemption on your backside we surface alongside miles standish and take the rock. We have relations in Mozambique. I have a brother or two and a whole lot of karma to burn... Isis and the moon shine on me. When Rubin gets out of jail, we celebrate in the historical parking lot in sunburned California...