The first four photos in this post were taken with the kind permission of the curator of the Fred Waring collection at Penn State, Fred Waring’s America, which I visited on a sudden whim yesterday morning. Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians “taught America how to sing,” they say; I can’t begin to imagine what that means. All I know is that this golfing buddy of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, this once-renowned purveyor of bland, inoffensive, beautifully choreographed arrangements of big band music grew up in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, the only genuine celebrity my home town has ever produced. I went to grade school in the former high school that had been built on the site of Waring’s childhood home.
But it seems Fred Waring had his wild and crazy side, too. He devoured the comics, and his archives include hundreds of original graphic artworks drawn for or about him by the cartoonists he befriended. He was apparently also fond of wearing “distinctive and original, sometimes ‘wild-looking’, jackets,” as one display put it.
I grew up listening to the five-string banjo. My older brother started learning the melodic clawhammer style when he was ten, after a few lessons from my banjo-playing uncle, who was part of the New York City folk revival in the 60s and 70s. I love the sound of this most African and most stigmatized of American instruments.
The music Waring got his start with wasn’t Appalachian string band music, however, but the kind of post-minstrel proto-jazz then popular among the hipper white folks. It makes perfect sense that Waring would go on to become the Pat Boone of the swing era. Someone had to do it, and who better than a genial, slightly funky, nice-looking white boy from smack in the middle of a state which was synonymous, then as now, with middle America?
It must be said that Pennsylvanians come in all stripes, however. Later in the day I attended a function at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center — also part of Penn State — and took the opportunity to visit the birds at the raptor center.
The birds on display are permanent residents, too badly injured to survive in the wild — less shadows of their former selves than living ghosts, some of them. They may never again rise on thermals over farm fields or ride the wind currents along a Pennsylvania ridge, but they and their handlers regularly tour the state, visiting classrooms, county fairs, and the like. I’ve seen them in action, and I think it’s fair to say that these birds, however diminished, are celebrities everywhere they go.
I can’t help wondering whether some such diminishment might not be a prerequisite for achieving celebrity status, in fact. We crave an encounter with wildness, with what we dimly sense to be a more authentic reality than our own, but without the danger and disorientation full contact might entail.
Shaver’s Creek also includes several miles of trails, a boardwalk over a wetland, and a beautiful little herb garden with a lily pond. Yesterday, the water lilies were in full bloom, and when I bent down to snap a photo of one of them, I realized that a green frog (Rana clamitans melonota) was sitting in meditation right next to it, like a Buddha that had just decamped from his lotus. I circled the pond, snapping photos. He never moved.